CHAPTER 24 (PART II)
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.
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!
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!
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.”
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.
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?
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.
“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.
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
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.
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.
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….