“THIS BATTLE OF FRIEDLAND MAY BE COMPARED TO THAT
(Napoleon. Extract of the 79th Bulletin of the Grand Army, 17 June 1807)
Thanks to the time the troops had spent in their winter quarters and to the supplies that had been found in Dantzig after the capitulation of the town on 26 May to Marshal François Lefevre (1755-1820), the Grande Armée had recovered its strength and was ready to resume the campaign.
Time had come to give the coup de grâce to the Russian army and make Bennigsen, the fake victor of the battles of Pultusk and Eylau (as we have already seen in our previous chapters) swallow his lies.
To force him to disclose the truth which he had until now refused to reveal: he had been defeated twice and even if the second time he had not been totally defeated, he had nevertheless been defeated.
And if Napoleon had already been “defeated” twice, it was difficult not to delude oneself with illusions and imagine that Bennigsen was about to win a victory which would stand comparison with Jena.
Thus, in the spring of 1807 the European monarchies of “divine rights” had set all their hopes on the Russian by adoption who now commanded the Russian army.
MARSHAL NEY SERVES AS BAIT
Napoleon had initially intended to start his military operations on 10 June as this extract from the instructions he sent to Marshal Soult, at the head of the IV Corps, from Finkenstein on 5 June, shows:
“… I would be content if the enemy spared us the trouble of marching to him. My intention is to set out on the 10th. I have made all my arrangements to be provisioned and to march to the enemy at that time…”
The Emperor had left Ney with his VI Corps in the vicinity of Guttstadt where his role was to serve more or less as a decoy, but the immediate result was that Ney soon found himself the furthest away from the rest of the troops and isolated. So isolated, that in a letter dated March 16th, addressed to Marshal Berthier, Ney exposed the “critical” situation of his troops.
BENNIGSEN OUTMARCHES NAPOLEON
Thus on the 5 June, Bennigsen took the initiative and began the campaign by ordering an attack on Ney’s VI Corps at Guttstadt.
Ney who had been carefully briefed by Napoleon, retreated in good order under Russian pressure, then after having lured the enemy forward, he turned to face him at Deppen. “The village, wrote Ney, was taken, lost and retaken six times by bayonet, before it remained in the hands of the men of the VI Corps.”
MURAT’S CRIMINAL INITIATIVE
Napoleon had formed a powerful advance guard with part of his cavalry and two of his corps d’armée, those of Lannes and Soult. Enough to attack the Russians boldly, hold them, and delay them until the bulk of the army arrived.
Yet on the 10 June, Murat, whom Napoleon had expressly commanded to block the Russians ‑ and nothing more – forgot the order he had received as was his habit and without thinking or stopping to consider the Russians’ dispositions, he threw what cavalry and troops he had with him ‑ 30,000 against 80,000! ‑ in an assault against the strong defensive positions held by the enemy without even waiting for the arrival of Lannes.
The Russians’ defensive positions really were strong and the episode ended in complete failure. The cost of the stupid and useless slaughter which was the result of Murat’s rash impetuous and insubordination amounted to 9,000 French killed or wounded and 12,000 Russians. Moreover, his blunder gave Bennigsen the opportunity of slipping away and escaping along the right bank of the River Alle.
Napoleon, immediately ordered the pursuit. Murat, Davout, Ney and the Imperial Guard headed for Konigsberg, while Soult marched with General Victor upon Landsberg to repulse the Prussians, and General de La Tour Maubourg’s dragoons together with Lasalle’s division hotly pursued the foe along the right bank of the river.
Late on the 12th, the French Army arrived in and around Eylau. The surroundings had changed considerably since the terrible battle which had taken place on the 8 February.
“I saw once again, wrote a “vélite” (young) soldier in the Imperial Guard, Jean-Baptiste Barrès, who had been present at the battle, with a certain amount of satisfaction the famous battlefield which had been saturated with blood now covered with lush vegetation and monticules under which thousands of men rested. The immense carpet of snow had disappeared and given place to fields, brooks, ponds, clumps of trees, which we had been unable to discern on the day of the battle.”
Still unaware of the enemy’s precise intentions, Napoleon ordered two advance guards. The first, formed by Murat and Soult, was to head for Königsberg, the second, Lannes with his V Corps, was to proceed to Domnau, opposite Friedland.
Bennigsen’s plan was to reach Königsberg where he hoped to find reinforcements as this stronghold had not yet capitulated to the French and was held by a strong Prussian garrison.
MARSHAL LANNES REMARKABLE FEAT
Today, in spite of the honours which had been lavished upon him, he was still a remarkable advance guard commander. And he was about to prove it yet again.
In spite of an appalling disparity in odds – he had less than 15,000 men to oppose to some 75,000 Russians – Lannes at once sent an aide-de-camp off to the Emperor informing him that he had the entire Russian army in front of him and at the same time he boldly launched an all-out attack.
Bennigsen, who still had no clear idea of what was going on, was convinced that fate had thrown an isolated French corps upon his path and he was reluctant to let such a tempting prey escape and unable to resist the temptation of attacking. He therefore ordered his troops to cross the Alle over four wooden bridges that were rapidly thrown across the river and which, he thought, would provide a safe means of retreat in case of emergency.
V CORPS’ INCREDIBLE EXPLOIT
On the 14th, at daybreak, in spite of the fact that he was in a critical position due to the overwhelming odds he faced, Lannes launched his attack. The welcome arrival of Mortier with reinforcements did little to relieve the pressure, however, as the French were still hopelessly outnumbered.
No matter! Lannes decided to hang on. At all costs
It did not take the Russians long to realise that their survival depended on annihilating the enemy corps barring their way as the position they occupied would rapidly turn out to be disastrous should Napoleon arrive and trap them. For after having crossed the Alle at Friedland, they now found themselves massed in the bend formed by the river and to be able deploy in battle order, they first had to occupy the plain of Heinrichsdorf before the arrival of French troops. To achieve this, the Russians desperately launched repeated charges which achieved nothing and ended in complete failure.
By preventing the Russians from deploying and taking position on the plain, Lannes was also securing the passage through the defiles of Posthenen which was the only possible route by which the rest of the French army could arrive.
Nine hours! Lannes resisted Russian pressure for nine whole hours.
At around 5 p.m., the sound of cannon-fire from Posthenen – where Napoleon had just dictated his orders for the battle, “At the bivouac, behind Posthenen” – finally announced to Lannes and his exhausted men that the Emperor was about to arrive.
In June the days are long.
Determined to seize the opportunity that Lannes’ tenacity had just given him of defeating the Russians once and for all, Napoleon immediately gave orders for a major counter-attack.
Upon joining the Emperor, Lannes was warmly congratulated.
As for Bennigsen, who realized that disaster was now imminent, he only had one course of action left open to him: to retreat across the river where he had come from and evacuate Friedland.
But the Russian troops which were dispersed first had to reassemble to cross the fragile foot-bridges which were under a heavy deluge of canister and shot from the guns that General Sénarmont had manoeuvred and brought up to a distance of no more than 120 metres from the massed Russians. Friedland, wrote one tactician of the First Empire, is the battle in which the artillery abandoned its traditional role of garrison arm and was divided into tactical groups so as to operate as a mass in front of the infantry to open up a gap in the enemy massed closely together.
THE RUSSIANS’ CRUEL DEFEAT
The imposture of the “victor” of Pultusk and Eylau had been unveiled. Once and for all.
For the Russians, it was a cruel defeat!
Even if the number of casualties, as always, differs, their losses amounted to 20,000 - 25,000 killed or wounded, against 7,000 for the French – which is, as always, too much – but illustrates the Emperor’s intelligence and prudence in preparing and executing his plans. General Caulaincourt, the Master of the Horse, wrote:
“As for the dead, there is not one Frenchman to be found for fifteen Russians.”
This was confirmed by the chief surgeon of the Grande Armée, Percy:
“It [the town of Friedland] was full of dead and wounded Russians; the part of the battlefield we crossed over to arrive there was full of them. The Russian Emperor cannot have any more guards as all we find are the corpses of guards that have been killed…”
We must note in passing that, as was his habit, the Emperor had given orders for the wounded Russians abandoned on the battlefield to be taken care of exactly like the French.
Percy, after the passage that has just been quoted, recalled that he set up “a sort of service for the hapless Russians that had been left behind at Friedland.”
As for the stronghold of Königsberg, the city capitulated on 15 June. In the port, the French found 200 vessels flying the British flag and loaded with supplies and ammunition together with 160,000 rifles which were still on board and which provided yet further proof if need be of London’s support of the Coalition.
With the capitulation of Königsberg, the King of Prussia, who was a victim of his own duplicity, had lost everything.
MARSHAL LANNES SECURES THE VICTORY
What we must remember above all about this day is the outstanding achievement of Marshal Lannes and the soldiers in his V Corps. By holding the Russians until the bulk of the Grande Armée arrived, he stopped them from withdrawing and thus gave Napoleon the possibility of winning a complete and decisive victory.
Without this exploit which was both human and military, Napoleon might not that day have been able to write these lines which he entrusted to his famous courier, “Moustache” who was his usual messenger for important news on memorable occasions.
“To the Empress at Saint-Cloud.
Friedland, the 15th June 1807.
I manoeuvred the enemy successfully.
Do not be anxious, but content.
Farewell, my dear, I am about to mount my horse.
And, in a post scriptum, he added:
“The news may be announced if it arrives before the Bulletin. A salute may be fired. Cambacérès is to make the proclamation.”
BENNIGSEN’S LAST IMPOSTURE
Russian officer who noted that, the army “was in full retreat and fleeing in total disarray.”
As at Jena, after the Prussian defeat, it only remained to order the pursuit and relentlessly hound the debris of the enemy army.
The French army pressed ahead towards the Niemen and, on the 19 June, the Emperor wrote:
“My Eagles are on the banks of the Niemen.”
At that moment, Murat, who was riding ahead of the army saw a Russian officer come up to him.
He was a messenger.
To be continued…