« …I must tell Your Majesty, war will
never be waged of my own desire,
because if it were so, I would consider myself to be
a criminal; this is what I call a sovereign
who wages a whimsical war that is not justified
by the politics of his States… »
Napoleon to the King of Prussia , Frederick-William III
Little did Napoleon suspect that as he was crushing Hohenlohe’s troops at Jena , the youngest of his marshals, Louis-Nicolas Davout, had with his III Corps, just completed to achieve the triumph of the Imperial Army by winning a victory of which there are few examples.
THE FRENCH OUTNUMBERED THREE TO ONE
During the night of 13 to 14 October, Davout held the Kœsen pass and occupied Naumburg. It was here that he received the Emperor’s instructions, conveyed to him by Berthier:
“The Emperor has located the Prussian Army with troops stretching from one league in front of, as well as on the heights of Jena all the way to Weimar , and has the intention of attacking at dawn. He orders Marshal Davout to advance to Apolda in order to fall on the rear of the army.”
Napoleon’s orders also stipulated that if Bernadotte (I Corps, 21,200 men) was with him he could march with Davout, but “the Emperor hopes that he will be at the position indicated at Dornburg.”
When these instructions reached Davout, Bernadotte was not at the “position indicated”, but next to Davout who asked the future traitor of 1813 to march with him. Bernadotte, who detested his colleague, refused quoting Napoleon’s instructions and without loosing time, he immediately ordered his I Corps to march to Dornburg.
Davout was going to have to fight the Prussians alone with his III Corps. With only three divisions, and it is important that we should name them here: Morand, Friant and Gudin, in all less than 29,000 men, including the 1,620 men of Vialannes’ cavalry brigade, and 55 cannon.
Facing him were more than 60,000 Prussians, including 10,000 cavalrymen, all under the orders of the Duke of Brunswick, who was still accompanied by the King and Queen Louise.
The III Corps advanced in the direction of Erfurt , passing by Auerstedt and Apolda. In thick fog, after crossing the River Saale, Davout’s men reached a plateau, on top of which they came to a village named Hassenhausen.
As at Jena , there was almost no visibility.
A chance encounter by a small group of French chasseurs à cheval who came upon a large detachment of enemy cavalry led to the first engagement. Only the timely intervention of French infantry that arrived in support saved the chasseurs. Under the pressure, the Prussian cavalry quickly fell back.
Uncertainty reigned in both camps as neither of the two commanders could determine with any degree of certainty what was in front of him or how strong a force he was up against.
Brunswick , the Prussian commander-in-chief, was of the opinion to wait for the arrival of the rest of the troops. Mollendorf, the oldest of the Prussian generals, believed on the other hand that the French were not present in any great number and suggested attacking them without further delay. King Frederick-William III came round to the latter’s point of view.
TO ENCOURAGE THE SOLDIERS, DAVOUT AND HIS GENERALS PLACED THEMSELVES IN THE MIDDLE OF THE SQUARES.
Stung into action by their commander who felt nothing but hatred and contempt for the French and especially for Napoleon, the Prussian cavalrymen attacked like brutes but without method or discipline. Soon the casualties were becoming increasingly heavy and Blücher, who tried to retreat in good order, was unable to stop panic from spreading in several of his squadrons.
However, the arrival in line of two fresh divisions gave the Prussians new vigour and the pressure became even heavier on Gudin’s division.
The arrival of the 2nd division of Davout’s III Corps, Friant’s division, lightenened the pressure slightly but not for long, such was the disproportion of the forces engaged.
Brunswick endeavoured to take the village of Hassenhausen , northeast of Auerstedt, back from the French, when Morand’s division appeared. The village remained in the hands of the French.
By this time, Davout had no reserve left as all three divisions of his army corps were heavily engaged with the enemy.
AFTER THE DEATH OF THE DUKE OF BRUNSWICK
Disaster soon befell the Prussian army as the Duke of Brunswick, who was taking part in the assault in front of Hausenhausen, was mortally wounded by a bullet.
The King of Prussia then took over the command and attempted to make an ultimate effort to break the French’s left wing. Davout called up the foot artillery of Morand’s division and immediately countered this manoeuvre. Decimated by the guns, the Prussian troops hesitated briefly, and Morand, Gudin and Friant’s divisions promptly took advantage of the situation.
With the arrival of Marshal von Kalkreuth and his two divisions, the Prussians started to hope again, but only for a short time for the newcomer’s mission was less to combat than to protect what remained of the army. As for Marshal Davout, he knew that the end was near.
On the left, Morand’s gunners swept the plain while on the right Friant’s gunners crushed the left flank of the Prussian army. The Prussians, amongst them Blücher, who had rallied his cavalrymen as best he could, were literally bombarded by the fire of the French artillery. In the centre, the French advance continued.
Despite the fact they were outnumbered three to one, Davout’s soldiers, who had been fighting since early that morning, continued to struggle with incredible stamina and courage.
It was now Kalkreuth’s turn to order a withdrawal.
Around four o’clock in the afternoon, the Prussians started to retreat towards Weimar .
The King, who gave the order, still hoped to be able to engage in a second battle there, with the support of the armies of Hohenlohe and Rüchel, for, just as the Emperor was unaware of the battle of Auerstedt, Frederick-William was still not aware of the catastrophe of Jena.
The Prussian soldiers slipped away on the road to Erfurt looking like a muddy torrent amongst the thousands of dead men and horses and the wounded lying on the ground in the midst of the broken artillery carriages.
It was not just a defeat, but a memorable “thrashing”. Prussian arrogance gave way to despair . From that day on the hatred that the Prussians felt for Napoleon who had done everything he could to warn them was fiercer than ever. But they would have to wait nine more years to take their revenge.
The losses suffered by Marshal Davout’s III Corps show the ferocity of the battle of Auerstedt: between 7,000 to 8,000 men which represented about thirty per cent of the corps.
Prussian casualties amounted to 15,000 killed or wounded, 3,000 prisoners, 115 cannon taken by Davout’s III Corps whose own artillery only totalled 55 guns.
In a preceding chapter, we mentioned the light-heartedness with which the Queen of Prussia left for the battlefield, after having insisted on a war in which she was to loose her pride, and which would see her army perish.
To show up the indecency of the Prussians’ war fever, here are two accounts, as announced in chapter 21, that describe the horror of the war that Queen Louise had been so eager to declare on France and which England had helped to finance.
The first account came from a light cavalry officer who was distant cousin of Empress Josephine, Maurice de Tascher. Here is his description of the town of Jena just after the battle, in which his right wrist was half severed by a sword cut.
“What an awful sight it is to see a field hospital at the time of a battle. There are more than 3,600 wounded here and we do not have enough surgeons, bandages or anything else that is necessary! One side of the town is in flames, and the rest is being looted, blood is streaming in the streets, and I do not think anyone could possibly see anything more horrible than the inside of the big church: the dying are stacked up on the dead lying haphazardly on the stone; heaps of arms and legs are lying next to the surgeon’s table. What a sight for those awaiting their turn!”
Two days after the battle, on the 16th, Percy, the chief surgeon of the Grande Armée (excluding the Imperial Guard) noted the following:
“Two hundred and seventy wounded, French and others, had been left two leagues from Jena , in a burnt village, close to the first battlefield… This morning, all of these unfortunate soldiers [who had been bandaged on the day of the battle] were still lying in their filth, in the middle of the arms and legs that have been amputated, surrounded by the dead covered in blood… While my servants were preparing my horses, I saw the church [of Jena , described by Tascher]: it is the most dreadful sight one could ever see.”
Yet this is a military surgeon expressing himself!
After these two reports, it is important to reread the following extract from the letter (cf. chapter 19) addressed by the Emperor to the King of Prussia before the start of the war:
“…I must tell Your Majesty, war will never be waged of my own desire, because if it were so, I would consider myself to be a criminal; this is what I call a sovereign who wages a whimsical war that is not justified by the politics of his States…”
It is also important to read another one of his letters again (cf. chapter 21) that he sent to the same recipient after the combat at Saalfeld, on 10 October, in which Prince Louis-Ferdinand was killed.
After rereading these lines written by the Emperor, it is easier to understand the distance that separates Napoleon, who is so often criticized and described as a blood thirsty warrior, and sovereigns like Louise of Prussia and her husband, who were so infatuated with themselves and their ridiculous illusions of divine rights which they never stopped invoking as they light-heartedly caused the death of thousands of men.
THE STRANGE INTERPRETATION OF THE 5TH BULLETIN IS
People who are familiar with this site know that the International Napoleonic Society has undertaken as its first mission to speak up and fight against the slander which tarnishes and besmirches Napoleon’s memory.
The evocation of the extraordinary victory of Auerstedt brings us just one recent example of this among many others …
In the prestigious Encyclopædia Universalis (Version 10, in CD-Rom), here is what one reads pertaining to the battle in which Marshal Davout illustrated himself:
“Auerstedt is eclipsed in favour of Jena . Only the Emperor must appear as the genial strategist who has anticipated everything.” (© Encyclopædia Universalis 2004, all rights reserved)
This short paragraph (that we have copy-pasted as can be seen in the copyright mention that follows it) may be found in the article devoted to Napoleon, in the chapter « La légende officielle » (The Official Legend).
The author of this clever little piece of malevolence (and there are others) is the French Napoleonic historian Jean Tulard.
If we interpret his remark literally – how could we do otherwise? – the Emperor deliberately belittled Davout’s merit in order to shine alone in the tragic episode of 14 October 1806 and attempted to eclipse Auerstedt for the sole benefit of his own battle of Jena . And it will not harm the Emperor’s memory to write that this battle, fought and won by Marshal Davout was, because of the disproportion of the forces facing each other, more exemplary than that of Jena .
We can however prove that this biased statement is nothing more than an obvious attempt to slander Napoleon’s memory.
In fact, in contradiction to what Jean Tulard writes in the Encyclopædia Universalis, Napoleon proclaimed as many times as he could the exceptional merit of his lieutenant.
Thus, on 15 October, when he obviously had only fragmentary accounts of the twin battle of Jena , here is what the Emperor wrote in the 5th Bulletin of the Grande Armée – the same author, Jean Tulard, writing that these Bulletins « impose the official version of the combats », we find it difficult to follow him in his reasoning :
“Fifth Bulletin of the Grande Armée
“ Jena , 15 october 1806
“On our right, Marshal Davout’s Corps performed wonders; not only did he contain but he also beat for over three leagues the largest part of the enemy troops which were supposed to come in on the side ofKœsen . This marshal showed distinguished bravery and strength of character which is the first quality of a warrior. He was seconded by generals Gudin, Friant, Morand, Daultanne, Chief of Staff, and by the rare intrepidity of his brave army corps.”
Touched by the Emperor’s expression of praise and sympathy, Davout answered the very same day in these terms
“Sire, the congratulations addressed by Your Majesty to your III corps and to the generals who are in command fills them with the deepest sensibility. Already, Sire, their devotion to you had no limits; they could not be more devoted, but they burn with the desire to have the opportunity to prove it to you once again. Permit me, Sire, on a personal level, to express how touched I am by Your Majesty’s praises. My blood belongs to you; I will shed it in all circumstances and my reward will be to merit your esteem and kindness.”
Napoleon’s detractors will easily reassure themselves by concluding that the letters reproduced above were merely written for official reason and were anything but sincere.
Yet here is an excerpt of a strictly personal letter addressed by the Marshal to his wife:
“… To complete your satisfaction, I am sending you a copy of the letter written to me by the Emperor. You, my little Aimée [the person in question is Louise-Aimée Leclerc, whose sister married one of Davout’s subordinates, General Friant] , whose existence is devoted to bringing consideration to your husband, you will feel, I am certain, great joy in learning that I have had the good fortune of fulfilling the Emperor’s wishes, thereby acquiring a few titles of his esteem and kindness…”
Hortense, the Emperor’s stepdaughter, also wrote to the Marshal’s wife:
“My dear friend, your husband may not have had time to write to you, he is very well. You will see by the Bulletin [underlined by us] that his corps held out during the whole day, against eighty thousand [sic] enemy and covered itself with glory.”
As for Talleyrand, he addressed his official congratulations in this very courteous message:
Defeated at Jena, defeated at Auerstedt, the arrogant Prussian army had not yet completely collapsed.
The Emperor now ordered the pursuit.
In the next chapter, we shall see how this proud army infatuated with its glorious past, which at the time was considered one of the great military powers in Europe, will collapse shamefully.
to be continued