Volume II

CHAPTER 24 (PART II)

 

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I may have imposed millions on the

German people, for it was necessary,

but I would never have insulted them

by contempt. I held them in great esteem.

Napoleon

 

 

A few hours after Napoleon’s orders were transmitted, strongholds were invested and the pursuit of Prussian fugitives had begun.

It would be an error to imagine that the Prussian Army was now reduced to what remained of a few battered and isolated regiments, for even after the twin defeats of the 14 October, the Prussians still had some 50,000 men under arms, of which 25,000 were commanded by Hohenlohe, 11,000 by Blücher and 14,000 served under the orders of the Duke of Weimar.

 

FORTRESSES CAPITULATE ONE AFTER ANOTHER…

For Napoleon, it was out of the question to allow these troops escape, for having fled, they would immediately have gone to reinforce the Russian troops that were stationed in Poland.

From that moment on, towns and fortresses capitulated one after another, most of them without putting up the slightest resistance. Not even to save the honour of the Prussian Army.

As for Napoleon’s marshals, they surpassed each other and worked wonders, like Ney, for example, who got his troops, who were utterly exhausted, to cover over fifty kilometres in a forced-march. In two days!

At Halle, the men in Bernadotte’s Corp, who had not participated in the fighting on the 14th, redeemed their commander’s honour by attacking the 50,000 Prussians commanded by the Prince of Wurtemberg, although they were heavily outnumbered. In the engagement, which ended in the Prussians’ defeat, Wurtemberg lost several thousand men who were either killed, wounded or captured and, forced to flee, he retired to Magdeburg, the rallying point chosen by Frederick-William, where he joined up with Hohenlohe.

Murat’s Cavalry Reserve, including Lasalle’s division, hot on the heels of Hohenlohe as he headed for Prenzlau.

Hohenlohe, who was surrounded, attempted to escape leaving 24,000 men behind him in Madgeburg, but hotly pursued by Murat’s cavalry, he was soon blocked in Prenzlow where he capitulated, refusing to fight the French despite the fact that they were heavily out-numbered by his own troops. He surrendered with 16,000 infantrymen and the six cavalry regiments that he still had with him, delivering forty-five standards and sixty-four guns into French hands.

There was an indignant and respectable reaction from Blücher’s nephew, who wrote to his uncle:

The Prince of Hohenlohe is not fit to live on this earth. The capitulation of Prentzlow is an abominable blow. The Prince capitulated at 2 o’clock and the French infantry only arrived at 4 o’clock ! The officers pity us for having such bad commanders. The Grand Duke of Berg (Murat) treated us most kindly, but it seemed to me that he treated Prince Hohenlohe contemptuously because of his cowardly behaviour.”

Let us recall here what the conceited Hohenlohe had heroically declared in the past for all to hear:

I’ve defeated the French in more than sixty engagements [!], and by God, I’ll defeat Napoleon if I’m given a free hand when I come to grips with him.”

But perhaps Hohenlohe had considered it beneath his dignity to come to grips with one of the Emperor’s lieutenants, and not with Napoleon in person!

On 16 October 1806 , Murat arrived in front of Erfurt with his cavalry. A few hours later, after brief negotiations, the Military Governor surrendered unconditionally. The French captured 14,000 prisoners of war, among them the Prince of Orange and old Marshal von Mollendorf, together with 80 guns.

At Erfurt, where the garrison of 6,000 men had been reinforced by the 8,000 fugitives commanded by Marshal von Mollendorf who had arrived seeking refuge, there were forty cannon with which to defend the walls of the city. More that enough to resist against the most determined troops, even men intoxicated by victory. Yet the town surrendered unconditionally after a siege - but can it really be called a siege? - that lasted no more than a few hours.

The pitiful way in which the proud Prussian Army, so full of contempt for others, collapsed has no other example in history, and the officers were amongst those who covered themselves with shame. Entire regiments surrendered in open country to enemy troops that were heavily out-numbered, making their capitulation all the more disgraceful.

Thus, near Pasewalk, just north of Prentzlow, a single light cavalry brigade (13th Chasseurs and 9th Dragoons), commanded by General Milhaud, captured a column of 6,000 men!

Another strong fortress, Spandau , surrendered without any resistance to Marshal Lannes :

“I went there in person, wrote Lannes simply, and had no trouble in persuading the commander to lay down arms.”

The great fortress of Spandau , situated 35 kilometres north-east of Berlin , which had the reputation of being impregnable surrendered without difficulty to Marshal Lannes. The French captured 80 guns, 4,000 horses and thousands of weapons, not to mention supplies.

Another example was the town of Küstrin , eighty kilometres east of Berlin. As the distraught King and the Queen fled desperately, they passed through the town which was commanded by General von Ingersleben who solemnly gave his sovereigns his oath that he would defend his position until death. Three days later, when French troops arrived, Ingersleben, all too easily forgot his promise, and without even waiting for an ultimatum, invited the enemy to take possession of the fortress.

The same shameful conduct was reported at Magdeburg, where Hohenlohe had left the 24,000 men already mentioned behind him. Marshal Ney, who was besieging the town, logically expected the siege to be a long operation, but much to his surprise, after a few days he saw a messenger arrive bringing him the capitulation of the city. Into the bag went 20 generals, 6,000 soldiers and 2,000 artillerymen, together with their artillery which had not fired a single round. Defeated, without even having fought, they all marched past the Marshal and his soldiers.

At Custrin, the well-fortified town on the river Oder , the Military Governor invited the French to take possession of the town without even waiting for an ultimatum.

A contemporary observer commented on the Military Governor’s behaviour in the following terms:

“General von Kleist is inexcusable. One may choose between regarding him as a traitor, or as a coward.”

What can one say of Breslau, where no sooner was the brief siege over, than the nobility of the town organised balls and receptions in honour of the Emperor’s brother, Jérôme?

The list of shameful acts committed by the Prussian Army is endless and quite inexcusable after the way in which the high command, and even the Queen herself, had insulted and slandered both the Emperor and the French.

Fortresses and strongholds capitulated one after the other offering no more resistance than sand castles.

In the course of this fantastic pursuit there is one outstanding episode especially worthy of our attention here as it is exemplary both by its audacious nature and by the result that was obtained without any bloodshed.

 

LASALLE’S INCREDIBLE BLUFF

In the big fortress of Stettin, anxiety reigned.

As soon as the siege of Breslau , the capital of Silesia , was over, balls and receptions were organised in honour of Napoleon’s young brother, Jérôme Bonaparte (1784-1860) who commanded the VIII Corps of the Grande Armé.

Although little was known of the details, the garrison knew that the Prussian Army had been massively defeated at Jena and that troops were fleeing north in total disorder. What worried the town officials most was the alarming news that Blücher was approaching fast, for he had already sent panic-stricken messengers ahead of him who had burst into the town demanding that the city resist at any cost until he arrived so that he could cross the river Oder unhindered and escape with his troops.

The inhabitants of Stettin, however, were mostly rich merchants and ship owners and certainly not cut out to be heroes.

The Military Governor, General von Romberg, was an old soldier and a veteran of Rossbach, the Prussian victory over the French in 1757.

He had seen far worse, and his calm attitude as he continued to smoke his magnificent porcelain pipe peacefully had a beneficial effect on his subordinates.

Anyway, Stettin was well defended with extensive fortifications to protect them from their enemies and a garrison of 10,000 experienced soldiers, not raw recruits, together with 160 guns.

In the port, there were several ships of the Royal Navy, the great supplier of arms, ammunition, uniforms and subsidies to the Prussian Army. Among others.

So there was no cause for concern.

As everyone was about to retire for the night, the shrill sound of a trumpet was suddenly heard within the fortress. It was undoubtedly a messenger who had been sent to negotiate.

Shortly afterwards, General von Romberg was informed of the arrival of a French officer, Colonel François-Xavier de Schwartz, commanding the 5th Hussars.

General Antoine-Charles de Lasalle (1775-1809), of aristocratic background, was probably the greatest
Light Cavalry general of all times.

“I’ve been sent by my superior, the Grand Duke of Berg, who summons you to surrender to him tomorrow morning. You will be granted the honours of war.”

Not forgetting he was Prussian, von Romberg immediately retorted:

«Tell your master that the town of Stettin was entrusted to my safeguard and that I shall defend it to my last man.”

An hour later, the same messenger returned with another, more precise and far more alarming ultimatum.

“If, by 8 a.m., you have not surrendered, the town will be bombarded by our artillery, stormed by 50,000 men, the garrison will be put to the sword and the town will be plundered during twenty-four hours.”

 

TEN THOUSAND PRUSSIANS SURRENDER TO … 500 HUSSARS

Had von Romberg consulted the town officials in the meantime? Whatever the reason,

at the appointed time…

All the men of the garrison appeared in perfect order, spruced up as if they were about to go on parade in front of Frederick the Great himself, preceded by their old Commander and their officers in their superb dress uniforms, and as they marched past the French the Prussians threw down their rifles one by one.

The ten thousand Prussians soldiers of the garrison at Stettin discovering with stupor and shame that they had just surrendered to 500 French hussars, commanded by General Lasalle, as is also shown in the opening illustration.

When von Romberg came up to the officer commanding the French troops he was so startled he gave a little jump for 10,000 soldiers in perfect fighting condition defending the garrison together with 160 guns and a town of 23,000 inhabitants had just surrendered to … a handful of hussars. And the 500 cavalrymen, who belonged to the 5th and 7th Regiments, were spattered with mud as a result of their forced marches and mounted on horses that were even more exhausted than they were.

They belonged to the Light Cavalry Brigade of the famous French hussar general, Antoine-Charles de Lasalle, aged thirty-one.

Forced to keep his word and sign the act of capitulation, von Romberg decided to be philosophical and make the best of the situation. Apparently, he bore Lasalle no grudge for he gave him a superb porcelain pipe and it was said that it was this same pipe that the General held in his right hand when he was killed leading a cavalry charge barely three years later towards the end of the Battle of Wagram, on the 6 July 1809. True or not, that was how the famous French painter, specialized in military subjects, Edouard Detaille, later portrayed the scene.

As a result of Lasalle’s incredible achievement, Napoleon, admiringly wrote to Murat, Lasalle’s superior:

“If your Light Cavalry captures fortified towns, I’ll have to discharge my Engineer Corps and have my heavy artillery melted down.”

 

BLUCHER CAPITULATES AND THE CAMPAIGN ENDS

Blucher fleeing north-west towards Lübeck, near
the Baltic coast, with his force which now totalled
approximately 25,000 men.


There was still one foe left to reduce to powerlessness, the despicable Blücher, who in his youth had been forced to resign from the Prussian Army by Frederick the Great for brutality, after he had tortured a Polish priest when he was a young captain. The trap was closing in on him and he had just narrowly escaped capture, not by fighting honourably but by lying and swearing - on his honour!- that an armistice had been signed.

The capitulation of Stettin which had blocked the passage over the river Oder had prevented him from passing the frontier into Eastern Pomerania.

Now he was determined to escape from the French at any cost.

The force he had with him at the beginning had increased to approximately 25,000 men, for as he fled he had picked up and rallied fugitives of the Prussian Army along the way, and he was now more than capable of defending himself.

Among the French in close pursuit was Lasalle, who had a personal vendetta with the Prussian, for it was to him that Blücher had told the lie about the armistice and this episode had earned the dashing hussar a letter from the Emperor, severely reprimanding him, which Lasalle had not appreciated.

French Cavalry relentlessly pursuing Blücher.

 

The neutral free city of Lübeck, near the Danish frontier, was besieged by the French after Blücher had forced his way in taking possession of the town.

Blücher now led his troops in the direction of Lübeck, near the Baltic coast and the Danish frontier. Murat, together with Lasalle, Bernadotte and Soult were hot on his heels.

Hoping to join forces with a Swedish division of reinforcements and, if possible, escape by sea, on 5 November, Blücher arrived in front of Lübeck, a prosperous town of 22,000 inhabitants, and above all, a neutral town.

When the town authorities refused to allow him to enter the city, Blücher, reacting with characteristic ruthlessness, simply had the doors of the city knocked down. Then, he placed his artillery and demanded money and supplies. He obtained neither.

As Blücher had been cowardly enough to force his way into a city which was theoretically neutral without sparing a thought for the civilian population nor for the grave consequences that his act would inevitably entail, French troops had no choice but to storm the town.

The IV and I Corps, belonging to Soult and Bernadotte, stormed the city and after combats of unheard of violence the Prussians were annihilated. Scharnhorst, Blücher’s Chief-of-Staff, and 10,000 men capitulated. The hapless town was subjected to the usual fate of cities that were attacked, and the 10,000 Prussian prisoners, who nobody guarded in the confusion, actively participated in the sacking of Lübeck, which was Blücher’s fault entirely. General Maison, who was appointed Governor of the city, had considerable difficulty in restoring order.

Once again, Blücher managed to escape capture and with part of his force he attempted to cross the Danish frontier, but was turned away.

Finally surrounded at Ratkau, ten kilometres north of Lübeck, Blücher sent a messenger hypocritically declaring that he no longer “had bread or ammunition” before he finally surrendered to Murat and Bernadotte.

After breaking out of Lübeck as the French stormed the city, Blücher was finally caught at Ratkau later the same day. Before consenting to sign the surrender agreement, Blücher who was furious at having to surrender to Napoleon’s soldiers demanded that the document should bear the following mention: “I capitulate, since I have neither bread nor ammunition”.

With the capture of Lübeck and the capitulation at Ratkau, the French took another 15,000 prisoners, a countless number of flags and standards and more than forty cannon.

 

“THE EMPEROR WHISTLED AND PRUSSIA NO LONGER EXISTED”

In little more than a month, the conceited Prussians, who had boasted they would chase “the French dogs from the banks of the Rhine with cudgels” saw their Army destroyed and lost 140,000 men who were taken prisoners of war, 250 colours and hundreds of pieces of artillery.

In only thirty-six days, the Prussian Army had been annihilated and, cruelly, Heinrich Heine, the German poet, wrote:

“The Emperor whistled and Prussia no longer existed.”

As for Murat, he concluded with a Shakespearian phrase when he wrote to the Emperor:

“Sire, the combat ends for want of enemies.”

 

 

To be continued….