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“He was a great man, especially
Napoleon’s homage to the King
On the whole, the Prussians showed no indulgence whatsoever for the commanders of their defeated army, who with all their bragging had deluded them into believing that the Prussian Army would not be defeated.
Texts written by Prussian historians themselves are incredibly brutal.
One of them, Johann Scherr, thus wrote that “the entire Prussian Army was in a rut and everything was rot, mire and mildew”. Sic!
“There is no other example of the cowardliness of the officers, particularly of the Military Governors commanding the fortresses in the history of any nation. Their treasons are the most shameful ever recorded in history.”
The following letter dated October 17, was written by a Prussian officer to his wife. It is a personal letter which was intercepted by French troops shortly after the battle and was printed in the French newspaper, “Le Journal de l’Empire”, dated 28 October 1806 . (See reproduction above) It clearly sums up the extent of the catastrophe provoked by the Prussians’ war frenzy.
“My very dear wife, I am still alive and in good health after taking part in the ill-fated battle. But alas! I must tell you that we have lost half our army, as well as all our best generals. My battalion behaved perfectly under fire, but lost its guns during the retreat. My company alone lost 40 men together with Lieutenant Schweinitz. If I had to tell you of all our misfortunes, it would take for ever. At Weimar , the enemy captured all our baggage and even our servants failed to escape.
I arrived at Nordhausen at night, on the 16th, horseless and deprived of everything. The Army is in full retreat towards Magdebourg. His Royal Majesty was badly bruised but is otherwise in good health. You may tell the Schuberten family that their oldest son was killed and that the other one is missing, as well as Jarusch, Michalzeck and Joseph Tyralla. Five NCOs, four musicians, three artillerymen and two engineers, together with all our grenadiers are also missing. Jablonnonsky lost all his men. Fontanias also. They have lost everything. Only our Major managed to keep a horse. Several generals were killed. Sanitz and Malchitz are missing. The Duke of Brunswick was shot through both eyes and has lost his eyesight. Ruchel and Winnig are dead. Many regiments are without officers, others have officers but no men. Our losses are immense. There is so much confusion that we can no longer distinguish the corps from one another. The battalions commanded by Lostin, Borck and Grodana no longer exist. They were part of the rearguard which was entirely hacked to pieces. You cannot imagine the ferocity and relentlessness of the French as they pursued us. You may write to me at the corps at Magdebourg.
“Nordhausen, October 17th.”
Another Prussian historian, Heinrich von Treitschke, wrote severely:
“Dazzled soldiers watched the downfall of ancient Prussia without the slightest interest. They abandoned their flags massively; prisoners who were liberated by a handful of bold cavalrymen refused to resume fighting. Many of the commanders had been brave officers in their youth, but their sense of duty was not based on patriotism. It was more as if they were frozen by the rigid pride of their caste.”
Even crueler, if possible, are these lines written to her brother by Louise of Prussia, who bore no small share of responsibility in the war and the disastrous defeat that followed.
Less dramatically and more pragmatically, the following year, King Frederick-William decreed that the Military Governors of Erfurt, Stettin, Spandau, and Magdebourg, together with all the generals serving within the town, all the officers in Hohenlohe’s Corps and all the officers who had deserted without permission and those who had surrendered to the enemy without belonging to a corps which had surrendered, or who had obtained passports to return home, should be demoted. As for the Governor of Kurstrin, he was condemned to face a firing squad.
More eloquently than any statistics, these two documents give a fair idea of how the country lived the bitter disappointment of defeat and went through the period of crisis.
So as not to interrupt the narration of the pursuit of the defeated Prussian Army by Napoleon’s soldiers, we deliberately postponed the description of the official entry of the Emperor, his marshals and troops into Berlin, which had been abandoned by its sovereigns as they fled pitifully to Memel (now Klaïpeda), a town of 6,000 inhabitants on the Baltic Coast.
First, we shall relate Marshal Davout’s official entry at the head of his III Corps into the Prussian capital.
But before doing so, let us briefly step back in time.
REMINISCENCE OF THE PAST
On October 24, as Napoleon headed for Berlin coming from Wittemberg, he stopped at Potsdam , described in geographical dictionaries of the period as “a big town and royal residence in the Kingdom of Prussia , on an island of 4 leagues [18 kilometres] in circumference formed by the Rivers Havel and Spree ”.
Marshal Lannes had taken possession of the town without encountering the slightest opposition; his hussars had merely caught sight - in the far distance - of the rearguard of the troops commanded by the Prince of Wurtemberg, who was supposed to defend the town.
As the Emperor was en route an unexpected encounter took place which deserves to be related here for it reveals his true character. Surprised in the middle of a forest by a violent thunderstorm, Napoleon had been forced to dismount and seek shelter in the house of the GrandVeneur (Master of the Royal Hounds) of the court of Saxony. As was his custom, he was dressed very simply wearing a plain, unadorned officer’s uniform. Much to his surprise, he suddenly heard a young woman call him, not by his title, but by his name.
She was an Egyptian and the widow of a French officer who had served in the Egyptian Campaign and she had been forced to leave France after failing to obtain a pension from the Directoire. A chain of incredibly tragical events had finally led her to the house in question where the owner had offered her shelter.
Without taking offence because the young woman had not used the correct form of address by not calling him, “Sire”, the Emperor immediately granted her a pension of 1,200 francs and made arrangements to take care of the education of the child she had had with her husband.
Comment from Napoleon to the group of people accompanying him:
“It’s the first time I’ve dismounted in a forest to avoid a thunderstorm. I had the feeling that I was going to perform a good deed here.”
NAPOLEON’S HOMAGE TO FREDERICK THE GREAT
In a letter dated the 24th, he wrote to Empress Josephine from the Chateau de Sans-Souci, Napoleon described the castle as “very pleasant”.
In one of the abandoned rooms of the castle, built in 1745 and designed by Frederick himself, the sword and sword belt which the Prussian monarch had worn during the Seven Years War and his Ribbon of the Black Eagle were discovered after they had been abandoned in the panic which followed after the defeats of Jena and Auerstädt.
“I prefer that to twenty million, exclaimed the Emperor, I shall send them to the veterans of the Hanoverian Campaigns. I shall give them to the Governor of the Invalides, who will keep them as tokens of the Grande Armée’s victories, and of the revenge of the disasters of Rossbach.”
The following day, the Emperor visited the tomb of the Prussian monarch, accompanied by Duroc, Berthier, Caulaincourt, and Captain (Count) Philippe de Ségur, attached to Imperial Head Quarters, who later described the visit. He noted that they were all astonished and impressed by the Emperor’s grave attitude as he meditated in deep silence for some ten minutes.
Napoleon was surprised and sad to see that the mortal remains of the great sovereign were “in a brass plated [cedar] wood coffin, placed in a plain vault without ornaments or trophies and without an inscription to commemorate his greatest achievements.”
His pilgrimage was not only a mark of respect and admiration for Frederick the Great, but also of pride at having defeated the Prussian Army, thus erasing the affront of Rossbach (Cf. Chapter 24, Part I).
The same day, symbolically, he inspected the Imperial Guard in the courtyard of the Castle.
It was at Potsdam that Napoleon expressed his anger for the first time against those responsible for provoking a disastrous war which they had then lost.
NAPOLEON’S SEVERE BUT COURTEOUS
When the Grand Chamberlain of the Duke of Brunswick, commander in chief of the Prussian Army, came to present a letter from his master commending his States under the personal protection of the conqueror, he received an icy welcome.
The following quotation is interesting as it reveals Napoleon’s resentment towards those who had in a way forced him to go to war and defeat them.
“If I had the town of Brunswick demolished, and didn’t leave one stone on top of the other, what would your Prince say? Doesn’t the law of talion permit me to do in Brunswick what he wanted to do in my capital? To announce the project of demolishing towns may be insane, but to attempt to dishonour an entire army made up of good, decent men by ordering them to leave Germany in daily marches at the command of the Prussian Army is something that posterity will find hard to believe. The Duke of Brunswick should never have been so injurious, his long military career and his age should have taught him to respect military honour, and it was certainly not on the battlefields of Champagne [a cruel reminder of Brunswick ’s defeat at Valmy] that your general earned the right to treat French military standards with so much scorn. An ultimatum of this sort only brings dishonour upon the soldier who presents it. It is not the King of Prussia who will be blamed for this dishonourable act, but the commander-in-chief of his war council, the general whom he entrusted with his affairs under difficult circumstances. The Duke of Brunswick alone will be held responsible for the war by both France and Prussia . The war frenzy which seized your old general set an example for turbulent young people and he swayed the King from his own opinion and intimate conviction.
A great deal of blood has been shed in a few days, and the Prussian monarchy is threatened with disaster. He is very much to blame, for a word from him would have been enough to warn them! All he had to say was, “Sire, believe the companion of your most illustrious ancestor, since Emperor Napoleon does not want this war, do not make him chose between war and dishonour, do not become involved in a dangerous conflict with an army that has been victorious for the past fifteen years, an army that is accustomed to conquests.”
The Emperor dismissed the Prince’s factotum with these words,
“Instead of preaching moderation as he should have done at his age and with his experience after a long career, he was the first to cry to arms.”
DAVOUT’S FORMAL ENTRY INTO BERLIN
In a previous chapter, we quoted a French Napoleonic historian who affirmed that Napoleon was jealous of his marshal’s triumph (cf. chapter 23 “Auerstadt, Marshal Davout’s Triumph”) and had deliberately tried “to overshadow Auerstädt to glorify his own victory of Jena ” so that he, Napoleon, alone “appeared as the genial strategist who had predicted and planned everything.”
Let us therefore see what really happened on October 25, 1806 …
To make sure that the III Corps, which was to be the first to enter into Berlin , would make as good an impression as possible the Emperor as usual neglected no detail and gave Davout precise instructions.
“Make sure that the officers are as well dressed as possible under the circumstances, and that the baggage and especially the followers who always look unsightly and make such a bad impression following immediately behind our divisions stop two leagues before Berlin and make their way directly to the regiment’s camp without passing through Berlin.”
If Napoleon had really had any intention of playing down Davout’s role on the 14th, would he have given him such precise instructions?
At around midday on October 25, Davout, at the head of his brave but battered III Corps, entered into Berlin, not to the sound of military music as might have been expected but, surprisingly, to the sound of a musical composition, Euménides from Iphigénie by the German composer, Christoph Willibald von Gluck. The conquerors galloped up the famous avenue, Unter den Linden in the direction of Rathaus, the town hall.
A certain amount of confusion occurred when Davout’s chasseurs à cheval (light cavalry horsemen) appeared clad in their green uniforms for Berliners took them for the Russian troops they were expecting. Let us recall that the Tsar had promised to come to Frederick-William’s rescue.
This illusion was rapidly dissipated, however, and Berliners then approached Marshal Davout without any animosity as town officials presented him with the keys of the city. Davout refused to accept them saying that they should only be presented to Napoleon.
After their appearance which was purely symbolical, the men of the III Corps immediately headed for the Porte de Halle, situated on the outskirts of the town to set up their bivouac.
All Berlin was now awaiting the arrival of Napoleon.
To be continued…