If you make war, be decisive and severe;
it is the only way to make it brief and
therefore less deplorable for humanity
Napoleon to his Generals
In the preceding chapter, we transcribed the very worthy letter that the Emperor sent the King of Prussia on October 12, exactly two days after the Saalfeld affair, entreating him to let the voice of reason have its say, not the cannons’ roar.
When one considers what occurred two days later, one can only ask: Why did Frederick William make no response?
Had he, by this point, been rendered powerless to act by his advisors, even on a matter of such gravity that the fate of his country depended on it?
Had he, in fact, neglected the warning of Field Marshal Count Kalkreuth, with which we ended the preceding chapter?
What a battle sometimes depends on…
There is, in fact, a simpler explanation that is both more ludicrous and more pitiful…
On October 12, after having dictated his letter to the King of Prussia, the Emperor summoned one of his aides-de-camp, Montesquiou, and gave him orders to deliver his final call for peace to the Prussian outposts.
When he arrived at his destination, Montesquiou was stopped by a Prussian officer. He explained the reason and extreme urgency of his mission and showed him the document he was carrying. The Prussian wanted to hear none of it, and as Montesquiou was not preceded by a bugler, as was customary, he refused to accept his status as negotiator, then, to compound his blunder, held him captive, after his men had robbed him for good measure.
This very fact was even recorded by Frederick William himself who, shortly after the battle of Jena-Auerstedt, was to send Napoleon a letter from his headquarters pleading for a cease-fire.
Let us summarize the prelude to this situation. On October 8, the two armies were on either side of the Thüringerwald forest, the French to the south, the Prussians to the north. The latter then initiated a movement intended to go around Napoleon while he was crossing the mountains in the northwest, but the Emperor got ahead of them by doubling back to Frankenwald in the southeast. By descending into the valley of the Saale, the French Army reached Jena on October 13, both behind and on the flank of the Prussian positions.
Fearing encirclement, the Prussian commander, Brunswick, accompanied by the King of Prussia and Queen Louise by whose grace all these soldiers were to be torn to pieces, pulled back his 70,000 men in the direction of the Elbe, while Hohenlohe, with his 50,000 troops, was ordered to cover the withdrawal.
In addition to these troops, there were 20,000 more under the Prince of Wurttemberg in Magdeburg, and 25,000 others in Silesia, making a total of some 165,000 combatants.
The Prussian view obscured by the Landgrafenberg
Napoleon’s march was so rapid that, on the 12th, the Prussian army had already been almost circumvented and cut off from the capital. It regrouped around Weimar, in two large units; one in the southwest, commanded by the Prince of Hohenlohe (and let us recall that it was he who, having beaten the French in “more than sixty engagements,” boasted that he would whip Napoleon if only he had “a free hand”), while the other, in the North-East, was led by the Duke of Brunswick.
On October 13, Hohenlohe was informed that Napoleon was probably ahead of him with the bulk of his army, approximately 155,000 men in all, not including the 8th Corps under Mortier positioned too far on the left of the French forces.
This caused little concern for the Prussian commander because, between his troops and those led by the man who the Prussians claimed would not even “make a corporal in the Prussian army,” lay the Landgrafenberg plateau, at the foot of which runs the Saale, the site of such a disaster for Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia just two days before.
Moreover, this plateau, which extends for some 400 meters, was considered invincible because, as the grenadier of the Imperial Guard, Jean-Roch Coignet, recounts in his famous Journals, “the slope is as steep as the roof of a house.”
Hence, the unruffled calm of Hohenlohe, for whom it was unthinkable that anyone could assemble a body of troops on the Landgrafenberg, and still less pieces of artillery.
But the “corporal” was in a class apart…
Priceless help from a Saxon priest
On the morning of October 13, the Emperor heard the growl of guns on the Jena side of the river, those of Marshal Lannes’ 5th Corps leading the vanguard, and headed in that direction.
Let us recall that, three days before, Marshal Lannes had, unaided, scored a brilliant victory at Saalfeld. With only 4,000 men and three regiments of cavalry in the field, he had routed the 10,000 soldiers of Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, who met his death in single combat with a non-commissioned officer of the 10th Hussars, Jean-Baptiste Guindey (see preceding chapter). What was even more remarkable about the victory was that the 5th Corps commanded by Marshal Lannes was entirely made up of conscripts with no experience of war.
When he arrived within four kilometers of the city, the Emperor met an aide-de-camp bearing a dispatch from the Marshal. It informed him that the 5th Corps had succeeded in driving the vanguard of the Prince of Hohenlohe’s army out of Jena, had installed itself on the left bank of the Saale and had marched on to the Landgrafenberg – “Yesterday,” wrote Marshal Lannes, “I arrived before Jena with my army corps. The enemy numbered between twelve and fifteen thousand men. After some artillery fire, they withdrew to Weimar, but I could not pursue them at night since the country here is abominable…” The commander of the 5th Corps further informed the Emperor that there was “an encampment of around twenty to twenty-five thousand men between Jena and Weimar…” and that “total disorder gripped the enemy army.”
Just as Coignet graphically described, the surroundings of the plateau dominating Jena were very steep on the city side, and the only access was via the road to Weimar. But it was a long and difficult march “from which they would emerge into a small wood that was heavily guarded by Saxon troops allied to Prussia,” explains another well-known diarist, Marcellin de Marbot.
How, in fact, had Marshal Lannes’ soldiers reached the Landgrafenberg?
If one is to believe Marbot, their good fortune was the result of a Saxon priest’s initiative in helping the French find the only access road.
The priest offered to show them a little known route that led up to the heights by way of a wood. Following the priest’s directions, a platoon climbed the road and was met by rounds of musket fire when it arrived on the plateau.
When he heard the shooting, Marshal Lannes, accompanied by Reille, one of his brigadiers general, immediately went up with a platoon of the 40th Infantry Regiment.
The fog had dispersed, and the Marshal could clearly view the Prussian army ranged in three lines, occupying several kilometers of the hilly terrain extending in an arc between Jena and Weimar.
What was the motivation for this assistance that enabled the French to make a discovery that would prove crucial in the coming battle?
Jena is in Thuringia, at that time the property of the Elector of Saxony, whom the Prussians had forced, since he could not refuse, to ally his army of 20,000 men to theirs. Hence, the subjects of Frederick William were greatly detested. Saxon hatred for Prussia lay at the root of this unexpected help.
Such was the level of trust that prevailed between these Saxon “allies” and the Prussians that Goethe’s house in Weimar had to be placed under French protection, in fact Marshal Augereau, who set up his provisional headquarters there.
Apart from Augereau, the great writer was to receive successive visits from three other Marshals: Lannes, Ney and Victor.
Vivant-Denon, director general of the imperial museums, for reasons that are not known, also decided to visit and used the occasion to introduce the great Strasbourg design draughtsman, Benjamin Zix, to whom we owe a number of field sketches of Imperial campaigns, including some remarkable drawings of the Prussian Campaign of 1806.
Armed vigil over the Landgrafenberg by Marshal Lannes’ 5th Corps and the infantry of the Imperial Guard
After reaching the site by means of directions obligingly supplied by the patriotic priest, Napoleon realized that between the top of the path and the lower part of the Landgrafenberg occupied by the Prussians, there lay a rocky plateau where he could muster part of his army and charge down on the enemy as if from a fortified emplacement.
Thanks to exceptionally good visibility for a late afternoon in autumn, Napoleon, accompanied by Marshal Lannes, could observe the Prussian encampment below him in the distance. It was a superb position from which he could launch an attack and which he needed to occupy without delay.
“There were [Prussians] as far as the eye could see,” recounts General Rapp in his memoirs, “they stretched beyond Weimar.”
The view was such, that the Emperor was convinced he had whole Prussian army in front of him.
He at once gave orders to use the very narrow, almost impassable dirt track skirting a chasm out of enemy view, in order to advance the 21,500 men of Marshal Lannes’ 5th Corps and their artillery, together with the infantry of the Imperial Guard.
On the Landgrafenberg. After studying his maps, Napoleon dictated his
battle orders for the following day. (All rights reserved)
Napoleon could have descended again to spend the night in Jena castle, but preferred instead to bivouac with the men.
By nightfall, the troops were already massed on the plateau, but the artillery was missing at roll call.
To determine the cause, the Emperor decided to go back down again towards Jena, and en route he discovered the reasons for the artillery’s delay; in the darkness, the gunners had taken a wrong turn and confused a steep-sided ravine for the road. Two hundred carriages were stuck there, the hubs of their axles jammed on either side.
The Emperor lights the soldiers’ way with his lantern
The remedy was not long in coming.
With a promptness that we can well imagine, Napoleon gave orders for everyone immediately to get to work to widen and level the slope. He had lanterns and tools issued to all the battalions, and the soldiers, working in one-hour shifts, struggled to hew the rock and make the way passable.
The men witnessed the unforgettable image of the Emperor, lantern in hand, lighting the way for his soldiers, whose energy was ten times greater on account of his presence in person.
Could one ever imagine one of the sovereigns by “divine right,” for instance the King of Prussia, acting in like manner?
Napoleon stayed until the way was completed, and did not leave his post until the first gun had passed by harnessed to twelve horses.
In the morning, Marshal Lannes’ entire 5th Corps and the infantry of the Guard were ready.
Morning reveille would be fearsome for the Prussians.
It is quite impossible to try to summarize the battle given the restrictions of space, but we can at least attempt to recreate its essence to get a better understanding of the different fighting styles of the French and the Prussians, and perhaps grasp the military genius that the Emperor was forced to employ, despite having pleaded in vain with his adversaries, in their own interest, to avoid the sorry disillusion that would ensue.
Hohenlohe’s belated discovery
On October 14, around four o’clock in the morning, the French troops were roused. They filed out of their bivouacs in the middle of a thick fog that cast the Emperor and his men in ghostly silhouette.
As always before battle, a speech of advice and encouragement ignited the soldiers’ ardor.
“Soldiers! The Prussian army is cut off like Mack’s was in Ulm, exactly a year ago today. Their army is fighting for appearance’s sake only and in order to reestablish their lines of communication. Any corps that allows itself to be broken will be dishonored. Have no fear of their famous cavalry, but oppose them with your bayonets in solid squares.”
They did not need to be told twice.
And at six o’clock, still in total darkness, came the signal:
Instantly, the troops descended the plateau. Their tactic was rudimentary but effective: everyone encountered on the slopes was a friend, everyone down below an enemy. Since the fog prevented any more precise identification, a lunge with the bayonet put an end to any interrogations.
The French concentrated their strength at the centre, between the villages of Vierzehnheiligen and Isserstedt.
Around eight o’clock in the morning, the sun finally pierced the veil of fog.
It was only then that Hohenlohe belatedly realized that he was facing a real battle and not just some mere diversionary skirmish to test the enemy’s strength. In great haste, he had the troops fold up all the tents in which they had sheltered overnight (we saw earlier how Frederick William’s army lived and traveled).
The Prussian divisions fell in with exemplary discipline and launched an attack, causing the men of Marshal Lannes’ 5th Corps, the first in action, to fall back for a moment.
Two fighting styles opposed
On one side, among the soldiers of the Grande Armée, we find enthusiasm for the Emperor, speed, courage, flexibility in action, and dynamism; on the Prussian side – courage, inflexibility and sluggishness.
The French troops “did not play the game” anticipated by their opponents, who still maneuvered in the style dating from the time of Frederick the Great, in perfect order and at a majestic pace, stopping within firing range and loosing off volleys with complete composure. They knew no other way, and had been taught that this was the path to inevitable victory.
But not that day!
On that day, their perfectly aligned ranks were sitting targets for the swarm of fast, nimble French riflemen, followed by columns of troops marching with unquenchable energy to the sound of the drums and the music, and supported by horse-drawn artillery rapidly deployed in battery, causing whole lines of men ordered not to budge to fall like ninepins.
Two hours! The Prussian infantrymen had to hold out for two hours under withering fire that mowed them down relentlessly. Finally, when the losses became horrendous, the regiments on the left flank were the first to flee and soon the whole line broke ranks.
Hohenlohe was no longer in any doubt about the gravity of the situation in which he found himself and endeavored to regroup his men, striking at them with his cane to force them back in fighting order.
Under enemy pressure, the French line wavered at times, but Napoleon did not slacken and launched fresh troops and artillery continuously as they arrived on the plateau. From the Heights of the Landgrafenberg, which the Prussians believed their protection since they thought they could not be climbed, French infantry, cavalry and artillery now stormed down, all roused by the sight of Napoleon dictating from on high the targets to strike.
Around two o’clock in the afternoon, the French line pushed forward with renewed vigor. The Prussian fire faltered, and the French redoubled their fusillade.
For a moment, a ray of hope appeared to the beleaguered Prussians: around four o’clock in the afternoon, an additional army corps arrived in the field, that of Lieutenant General von Rüchel, with 23,000 fresh troops.
Without hesitation, Rüchel flung himself courageously into the fray, not perhaps so much to save the situation, as the Prussian disorder signaled only too clearly their desperate position, as more likely to have the honor of laying down his life for Frederick William. Soon after his appearance, he fell, struck by a ball right in the chest. He was believed lost, but was “only” seriously wounded.
Nevertheless, his sacrifice was in vain. In under an hour, his 23,000 men were killed or wounded, and the frantic survivors had rushed to swell the flood of Prussian fugitives that spilled in a torrent in all directions.
Where was the other part of the Prussian army?
What became of Davout and Bernadotte?
Napoleon did not fail to realize that, contrary to first impressions, he had not faced Frederick William’s entire army. He estimated around sixty thousand men were in the field.
Not knowing where the rest were, he expected to resume combat the following day or the next.
But his mood was calm as he waited, for he had lost only a few men. He also knew that when the remainder of the Prussian army appeared, they would have a serious deficit in numbers (and morale) since most of the army was already in full rout.
The Prussian losses, at that point, consisted of some 12,000 killed or wounded, and 15,000 prisoners. In addition, they had abandoned two hundred cannon and several hundred military colors for capture by the French.
At the end of the day, when he departed again for Jena, the Emperor did not yet have any notion of the extent of his triumph.
He was merely astonished not to have seen either Davout or Bernadotte, for he was still unaware of what had occurred about fifteen kilometers to the north…
To be continued: (Auerstedt)