The Emperor’s Tipping Point | HistoryNet MENU

The Emperor’s Tipping Point

By John Prados
4/18/2018 • MHQ Magazine

Forget Waterloo: Napoleon’s decline was clearly signaled by his failures at the Battle of Eylau eight years earlier.

Poland, February 8, 1807. In the midst of a blizzard, Napoleon I, emperor of France, stands in the steeple of a church in the little East Prussian village of Preussisch-Eylau, commonly called Eylau, straining to see what is happening as a desperate battle rages about him. Advancing Russian troops are within a few hundred feet of capturing or killing the emperor, and what once seemed a routine battle has suddenly taken on far greater importance.

Just 10 days earlier, French armies had been some 145 miles south, standing on the frozen Vistula River, relishing their capture of Warsaw. They had marched hundreds of miles across Prussia, shattering the military might of a country the French had feared since Frederick the Great ruled there.

In Warsaw, French diplomacy had confronted Polish nationalism, and Napoleon saw its face take the form of the beautiful countess Marie Walewska. That encounter was the beginning of a torrid love affair, and became a perhaps fateful distraction, as the Age of Napoleon was poised to either wax or wane. For more than a decade, in the face of every obstacle, Napoleon had fought wars and scrounged supplies for his troops, while simultaneously supervising the political and social transformation of his army, which was then serving Revolutionary France, and was now serving an empire.

But Russian armies had begun to move against him from the north, with an eye toward relieving Danzig, their aim to defeat his Grande Armée, even in the dead of winter. His own army tired and hungry, Napoleon faced a grim decision. “The enemy seem to be maneuvering,” Napoleon had written to François-Marie Roullet, Baron de la Bouillerie, one of his bankers. “I am raising my camps to make a countermarch.”

Now, at Eylau (modern Bagrationovsk, 20 miles south of the Russian supply center of Königsberg), a classic battle was unfolding. It would witness the greatest cavalry charge of the era, mammoth flanking movements, and some of the most desperate fighting of Napoleon’s time.

The two-day clash would not be the largest battle of the Napoleonic Wars, but it was one of the bloodiest, a huge engagement fought under the worst imaginable conditions. It was brought about by the emperor glimpsing an opportunity to drive a wedge into the Russo-Prussian alliance that had led to the so-called War of the Fourth Coalition. In doing so, Napoleon sought to keep alive Polish hopes for independence, and no doubt to please his countess mistress as well.

Measured in terms of France’s territorial control, Napoleon’s apogee would not come until 1812 when, for a fleeting moment, his empire extended from Gibraltar to Moscow. Some historians assert, however, that the tipping point came in 1809, when Napoleon made critical mistakes in the first key battle of an Austrian campaign in Aspern-Essling. Others believe his star began falling in 1808, when Napoleon led a French army into Spain but stopped short of decisively destroying his British adversaries.

In fact it appears the critical turning point came in Poland in 1807, and began with a strange winter campaign. Indeed, a very good case can be made that he lost his guiding star, and pitched his empire into decline, in the swirling snow of Eylau.

Imperial Russia had been quick to join Prussia, Saxony, Sweden, and Great Britain against France in the War of the Fourth Coalition, but was much slower to mobilize. By the time Russian troops reached the Vistula, Prussia had been all but knocked out of the war at the twin battles of Jena-Auerstädt on October 14, 1806. The first Russian clashes with Napoleon’s weary men came the day after Christmas that year at the villages of Pultusk and Golymin. The Russians had no luck, and though they claimed victory at Pultusk, they retreated from the field. Napoleon’s marshal Jean Lannes won that battle, while Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout prevailed at Golymin, backed by Marshals Pierre Augereau and Joachim Murat. The emperor himself arrived on the scene only the next day.

Napoleon could see that pursuit would be futile. “I think the campaign is over,” he informed his trusted adviser Jean-Jacques Regis de Cambacérès. “The enemy have retired behind swamps and deserts.”

The Russians had withdrawn in good order, French troops were exhausted, and the weather was vile—it had been raining for days. Napoleon wrote to Empress Josephine, “I am in a wretched barn…the mud is up to our knees.” The winter was reasserting itself quickly, with the thermometer plunging and the prospect of freezing imminent. French armies were exhausted after their long advance across Prussia. In addition, supply lines had yet to catch up with the advance of the Grande Armée; the troops were short of almost everything. On December 27, Napoleon decided to suspend operations and ordered his marshals to make camp for the season.

Yet the New Year of 1807 was not to bring a typical military campaign, when armies entered winter quarters to emerge rested and replenished in the spring. The Russians had hardly weighed in to the fight, as yet, and felt compelled to do more for their Prussian allies. The Prussian king had been driven from his capital, Berlin, but he remained unbowed, and the remnants of his army marched with the Russians.

This phenomenon—that a defeated enemy might persist in resisting the French—was one sign that Napoleon’s world had begun to shift. On January 2, Russian commanders conceived a plan for a new offensive, one designed to overwhelm Napoleon’s left wing and perhaps open the road to Berlin. The plan would lead to battle at Eylau.

There can be no doubt that Napoleon had his hands full before Eylau. In his system, the emperor insisted on making every major decision himself, and the government essentially moved with the army’s general headquarters. Napoleon was simultaneously occupied with military operations, grand strategy, support and recruitment of the armies, foreign and imperial policy, French domestic administration, and economic and social affairs.

Just a survey of the issues of concern to Napoleon during the very month his troops were crossing Prussia, exploiting the victory at Jena-Auerstädt, gives a sense of the emperor’s huge workload. Concerned about the scope of the coalition against him, Napoleon exerted himself to placate the Austrian Empire lest it join the conflict. His diplomats also negotiated with Prussia—in vain—for a direct settlement of their hostilities.

To distract Russia, he encouraged the Ottoman Empire to oppose Russia in the Balkans, and saw a flurry of diplomatic activity in late November when the Ottoman ruler, facing his own decision on a war, demanded to know more of the status of the French conflict with Prussia and Russia. To break Great Britain, Napoleon issued a decree in Berlin on November 21 that created a whole new foreign policy, the Continental System, which aimed to destroy British trade. As it became clear over the following weeks that his brother Louis, whom he had made king of the Netherlands, was not enforcing the new strictures on the Dutch, Napoleon intervened to force Louis to put his shoulder to the wheel.

Meanwhile, Napoleon changed the German map—and raised additional troops for his armies—by creating a new Kingdom of Saxony from part of Prussia. The emperor had also to wrestle with the question of Poland’s political status. Poles ardently desired independence, and creating a Polish nation would further weaken Prussia, but it threatened to send shock waves throughout Europe.

To alleviate the increasing frustration of the French citizenry, weary of his successive wars, Napoleon received a delegation from the French senate and made appropriate promises. And then there was his wife, Empress Josephine, so desperate to join her husband that she had already begun the journey. Napoleon wrote a series of letters affirming his love for her, warning of the dangers on campaign, and finally virtually prohibiting her from being with him. Later, to Marie Walewska, he proclaimed his ardor and simultaneously hinted at the quo for the quid, writing: “All your wishes shall be complied with. Your country will become more dear to me if you take compassion on my poor heart.”

All of this was apart from Napoleon’s most pressing military matters. To make good his increasing losses, the emperor demanded that replacements be sent forward and that new classes of Frenchmen be summoned to arms. That draft became increasingly difficult, requiring Napoleon’s direct attention, as war-weary Frenchmen evaded the call. His armies having outstripped their supplies, Napoleon also strove mightily to reorganize the supply system.

Then there was the matter of preparing his forces for the winter. Napoleon ordered his envoy in Hamburg to procure 50,000 new cloaks for the troops, and he had officials search high and low for supplies of new boots and for shoe leather. He ordered another official to form new ambulance units, expanding the army’s fleet of ambulance wagons. Then there were the sieges of several Prussian fortresses left behind the French advance. While dealing with these headaches, Napoleon still had to conduct the Grande Armée’s own operations, executing a design to minimize the impact of the Russian forces moving against him. The capture of Warsaw by Marshal Murat, leading the advance guard of the hardy III Corps, had begun as an endeavor to preclude the Russians from gaining this politically important objective.

The simultaneous battles of Golymin and Pultusk emerged from a renewed effort to outmaneuver the Russians. To accomplish this, Napoleon had to fling his troops across the Vistula for the first time. The emperor’s favorite aide de camp recorded that the troops “manifested the greatest repugnance to crossing the Vistula.” All across Poland they had already found so little food, certainly too little to rely entirely on the French army’s custom of foraging for subsistence—and eastern Poland was reputed to have less to raid.

“Some bread?” the men had cried; the peasants answered, “There is none.” Time after time. On Christmas Day, as the soldiers of Marshal Davout’s III Corps marched through the village of Nasielsk on their way to Golymin, Napoleon’s entourage passed them. “Some bread?” called an infantryman. “There is none,” the emperor himself shouted back. Davout’s men cheered, their spirits briefly buoyed; clearly Napoleon was not only aware of the state of the army but had shared his men’s experiences with the Poles. Finding winter quarters seemed the obvious solution.

Marshal Michel Ney’s VI Corps could not find sufficient food even within his cantonment. Without consulting Napoleon, he sent a flying column toward Königsberg, the last great Prussian city not under French siege, plus detachments to secure provisions. French foragers wandered a plain dotted with lakes and forests in search of farms. In this area the remnants of the Prussian army skulked, and the Russians soon learned of the French presence. With what they learned, the Russians planned a bold stroke against Napoleon’s left flank.

In the meantime, the emperor returned to Warsaw for his first lengthy sojourn there, and this was when he met Marie Walewska. Smitten by the Polish countess, Napoleon redoubled his efforts to keep Josephine away, and dallied in the city for a month of fetes, theater, and balls, long enough to fall hard for Walewska. Lulled into complacency by displays of captured Russian guns and thoughts of the supposedly crippling losses the Russians had sustained at Golymin and Pultusk—and perhaps because the countess distracted him—the emperor was slow to appreciate the developing Russian threat to his flank.

The Russians might have taken better advantage of the emperor’s distraction except for troubles in their own house. Two separate Russian armies led by the generals Peter Buxhowden and Leonty Bennigsen had fought the French in the late December battles. Both were under the nominal command of Gen. Mikhail Kamenski, but he did not want the post, contrived excuses for inaction, and finally left the front. Buxhowden was the senior officer remaining, but Bennigsen felt he should have the top command. Bennigsen had also claimed victory at Pultusk—Czar Alexander decorated him for the feat—and felt that justified his demands. Working through these differences took time.

Furthermore, the December battles had left the Russian armies physically divided, and when Bennigsen initiated the Russian turning movement, Buxhowden dragged his feet. On January 11 the czar’s orders arrived recalling both Kamenski and Buxhowden. Now Bennigsen led an army variously estimated at between 66,000 and 75,000. He began advancing, operating in tandem with the roughly 15,000 Prussian troops under Gen. Anton-Wilhelm von Lestocq. Several days later, Russian troops marching toward Heilsberg collided with Ney’s foragers. Bennigsen immediately attacked Marshal Ney’s column, harrying it for two days. Ney’s corps suffered losses but was able to avoid battle.

In Warsaw Napoleon was furious when he learned that Ney had left winter quarters. The emperor rejected the arguments of the staff officer Ney had sent to explain his reasons. On January 19, just before the first Russian attacks, Napoleon ordered the VI Corps to cease its movement toward Königsberg and withdraw toward its designated sector. Marshal Ney complied. In turn this exposed the cantonments of Marshal Jean Baptiste Bernadotte’s I Corps, dispersed across a wide swath from the Baltic coast southward, with his base at Osterode.

Fortunately for the French, Bernadotte received a reprieve of two days as General Bennigsen halted to rest the Russian troops. Bernadotte summoned his corps to gather at Mohrungen, the very place Bennigsen’s advance guard reached on January 25. This brought on the first real battle of the winter campaign. Arriving from different directions, Bernadotte’s troops drove back the Russians of Gen. Yevgeni Markov, with the loss of about 1,000 men on each side. But Marshal Bernadotte had no recourse except to fall back before the larger Russian army.

The Russian advance startled Napoleon, still in Warsaw and preoccupied with wooing Marie Walewska. Only two days before Mohrungen, he had written again to the empress to insist it was out of the question she should join him at the front, keeping the field open for his Walewska affair. But Bernadotte’s battle made it imperative that he heed this different challenge, the military one posed by the Russians.

In the words of Kevin Zucker, the most recent historian of this campaign, “Poland appeared one vast plain of ice.” By January 27, Napoleon, though convinced Bennigsen’s maneuver was designed to protect Elbing and Prussian interests on the Baltic coast, was nonetheless ready to call his troops out of winter quarters just as the season took hold. Ney’s VI Corps, regrouped, would cover the Grande Armée’s right flank. Marshal Pierre Augereau’s VII Corps, advancing from Mlawa, came up from Ney’s rear. Marshals Davout and Nicolas Soult were ordered to concentrate their forces and move north. The III Corps was to leave detachments to guard the sectors being vacated. Soult’s IV Corps, followed by the Imperial Guard, cooperated closely with Davout. Marshal Murat created a cavalry screen ahead of the right flank.

Napoleon, hoping to encourage a Russian advance toward the Vistula River, ordered Bernadotte to withdraw to the southeast, then circle back to join his strategic movement. By this means Napoleon might insert himself in Bennigsen’s rear, cutting the Russian supply lines and trapping them against the Vistula. The French pause around the beginning of the year had afforded Napoleon time to restock supplies, rest his troops, and bring up replacements. More than 35,000 fresh soldiers joined the Grande Armée between mid-December and the end of January. Bernadotte’s and Augereau’s corps in particular had been considerably strengthened, along with the Imperial Guard. The Guard even had its own supply train, obviating the need to forage. Indeed, in view of the season and the poverty of Poland, Napoleon shifted his general supply method. Now he relied on wagon trains, including many wagons impressed by the French in and around Warsaw.

A special payment to the troops, akin to the “donatives” given the Roman legions on celebratory occasions, and equivalent to most of a year’s pay, helped raise French morale. But the army remained less powerful than it had been at the outset of the campaign, and Napoleon also had to leave behind his V Corps to defend his own supply lines against forays by Russian forces farther to the east.

Napoleon left Warsaw on January 29, his headquarters taking the field with the army. He intended personally to open his campaign the next day.To Empress Josephine he wrote on February 1, “I am maneuvering against the enemy; unless they retreat promptly I may possibly cut them off.”

The Russians did not rise to Napoleon’s bait. General Bennigsen had tarried at Mohrungen following the battle there, and then redeployed some Russian forces to link more closely with General Lestocq’s Prussian troops. Bennigsen resumed advancing on January 28, but on February 1 he received crucial intelligence. Intercepting orders that Napoleon’s chief of staff, Gen. Louis Berthier, sent to Marshal Bernadotte, he learned the French emperor’s overall plan of action. Traveling by sleigh, the young courier, a cavalry sublieutenant, could not evade Cossacks who accosted him near Strasburg.

The military theorist Antoine Jomini, then an officer on Berthier’s staff, later observed that before that fortuitous capture, Bennigsen “had fallen headlong into the trap.” Now, seeing that Napoleon aimed to take him from the rear, the Russian commander ordered his subordinates to fall back toward Jonkowo. The eastward withdrawal of the Russian army and northward march of Napoleon’s troops set the stage for the great battle that would follow.

Russians used to talk about “General Winter” as their ally, and indeed, the season played havoc with Napoleon’s plans. An Imperial Bulletin, Napoleon’s form of public relations, which was issued on February 5, described the weather as “ideal”—3 feet of snow with temperatures in the high 20s. But the sun was hidden 7 days out of 10, snow showers were frequent, and the frigid weather was no ally. On February 2, one of Marshal Augereau’s officers, foraging for wood, fell into a snowdrift he reckoned a dozen feet deep, and extricated himself only with difficulty. Little wonder that cynical Frenchmen, deriding the emperor’s propensity for misleading, coined the phrase “to lie like a bulletin.”

The snow fell so hard on VII Corps that the men could see no more than two paces ahead of them. As many as a third of Bernadotte’s I Corps soldiers had no boots. Their feet bled in the snow. That day French troops skirmished with the Russians at the village of Bergfried, an action in which Soult’s columns were unable to use one line of attack because the Alle River, though frozen solid, was deeply piled with snow and impassable.

On the Russian side, General Bennigsen had to order his heavy artillery to use less icy roads, a detour that reduced his combat strength for a time.

By February 3, Napoleon was convinced there would be a major battle. At Passenheim that day he noted, “One can see that our movement has alarmed [the Russians]; and that they are trying to meet it.” But the emperor had to change his concept of where and how a battle would be fought: French scouts reported no Russians at places he thought they would be, while the Bergfried action demonstrated that Russian elements were also east of where he expected them. Reconnaissance of Bennigsen’s position at Jonkowo revealed the Russians in much greater strength than Napoleon could bring against them. Indeed, Napoleon was short of Berna dotte’s I Corps, its march delayed for two days because its orders had been captured. The corps commander did not learn of Napoleon’s plans until February 2. The emperor ordered a renewed advance in an effort to outflank the Russians on his right.

The Russian commander in chief understood his danger. Bennigsen ordered an unusual decampment at night in an attempt to steal a march on the French. He also wanted to draw Lestocq’s Prussians closer to his main force.

Marshal Murat’s cavalry encountered the Prussians on February 5 at Waltersdorf. The forward guard of Ney’s VI Corps came up in support. The description provided in the Imperial Bulletin was remarkably sparse: “Several successive charges took place, and the enemy retreated.” Napoleon wrote in a letter: “I am pursuing the Russian army. I have driven it from every position. I shall throw it back beyond the Nieman”—that is, across the Russian border, northwest of Königsberg.

During the hours of darkness, Bennigsen again resorted to a night march.

Marshal Davout, accompanying his 2nd Division, had that day passed the town of Guttstadt, near where Napoleon had originally anticipated trapping the Russians. Now Davout, Augereau, and Soult followed parallel tracks north. Murat and Ney composed the French left flank and had the most direct contact with the enemy. As the French columns neared each other, they regrouped. Murat took the lead, with Soult’s IV Corps behind him and the Imperial Guard to the rear. Ney took the left flank, Davout the right.

On February 6 Murat collided with the Russian rear guard under Gen. Mikhail Barclay de Tolly at Hof. Napoleon himself presided over the battle for the first time in this campaign. Murat’s repeated cavalry charges were ineffectual until Soult’s infantry arrived on the field. As the Russians maneuvered to counter the infantry, a fresh sally by the French horsemen startled them and broke some key units. The Russians drew back, but a blocking force held out until nightfall, when the last Russian forces withdrew in good order.

By now the sides were only about half a dozen miles from the little town of Preussisch-Eylau, where Bennigsen, reluctant to continue falling back, decided to stand and fight.

On a ridge in front of Eylau stood about 15,000 fresh Russian troops under Gen. Roman I. Bagration. General Barclay had withdrawn through this force into the town, and just beyond that the main army was deploying in battle order. With Murat in the lead, the Grande Armée arrived on the scene gradually and not until the afternoon. This time the French cavalry made no effort to attack before they had infantry support. Soult’s IV Corps was first to come up. Augereau’s VII Corps and the Imperial Guard followed. When Soult mounted an assault along two axes, with Augereau coming up on the other flank, Bagration decided he had had enough and pulled back into the Russian mass. Napoleon declined to attack into the town of Eylau at dusk and ordered his troops to bivouac on the hill.

French soldiers had to clear snow in order to set up tents. The emperor expected to do battle in the morning, when the corps of Ney and Davout might be available.

They were surprised when Russian cavalry counterattacked in the first real clash of the battle, threatening Napoleon’s baggage train. The French riposte carried them into Eylau anyway. Fighting raged into the night. Bagration was about to pull back when Bennigsen threw in a new division of troops. The Russians were finally ejected about midnight. Each side lost about 4,000 men that day.

The bitter cold continued past the dawn, and February 8 brought more snow. Conditions were awful. Worse, the Russians outnumbered Napoleon about 67,000 troops to 49,000 Frenchmen, and had a decided preponderance in artillery, 460 guns to Napoleon’s 200. One of the two French corps commanders, Augereau, was also sick with a fever and repeatedly begged to be replaced.

It was at this critical juncture that Napoleon first stumbled. Unaccountably, the emperor waited until morning to summon Ney’s corps, and sent Davout no message to hasten his arrival. Nor was Bernadotte anywhere to be seen. Ney and Davout, with about 28,000 troops between them, represented the difference between French inferiority or advantage. Bernadotte had another 16,000 men. With the three corps elsewhere, the battle opened with Napoleon at a distinct disadvantage.

This initial situation bears an uncanny resemblance to the American Civil War battle of Antietam, where the Confederate army of Robert E. Lee faced a superior Union force under George B. McClellan. Like the Russians at Eylau, McClellan benefitted from having captured his adversary’s orders, and he came on the field with a substantially greater force. At Eylau, as at Antietam, there were at least some reinforcements—the Prussians under Lestocq—who could still arrive.

At Antietam in 1862, McClellan negated his advantage by attacking haphazardly, never bringing his full strength against Lee. Yet the Russians’ commander, Bennigsen, was not even as skilled as McClellan. He made little use of his numerical advantage, except for the guns, commencing the engagement with a major cannonade. As would later happen with the Confederates at Antietam, French fortunes would turn on the arrival of forces coming late to battle. Napoleon, confident he would reverse the odds, moved quickly to begin a bombardment of his own, followed by a demonstration in which Soult’s IV Corps assumed an attack position. Russian troops sallied forth to meet Soult’s grenadiers—virtually the only autonomous Russian offensive action of the day.

Napoleon sought to take the pressure off IV Corps by attacking with Augereau’s men. The marshal got off to a poor start, however, when the officer bearing Napoleon’s orders, standing right next to Augereau, was taken apart by a cannonball. The ailing marshal had himself strapped onto his horse and led his troops out, only to be enveloped in a fierce blizzard.

Denis Davidov, an officer with the Russian troops opposite Augereau, recalled the storm as “making it impossible to see anything more than a few steps away.” The VII Corps became disoriented, losing contact with one of its divisions and the French cavalry. When the snow suddenly stopped, the French were directly in front of a powerful line of Russian guns. An immense slaughter ensued. Then came a countercharge by the Moscow Grenadiers, Schlusselberg, and Somov infantry regiments.

The French stood their ground. Davidov later wrote: “I have to say in truth that…throughout the period of all the Napoleonic campaigns, I have never seen anything to compare with it. For about half an hour you could not hear a cannon or a musket shot, only the indescribable roar of thousands of brave soldiers as they cut one another to pieces in hand-to-hand combat.”

Cossacks and Russian reserves came up to administer the coup de grâce. A celebrated passage in the French history of the era was the last stand of Col. Jean-François Henriod’s 14th Line Infantry Regiment. Its advance broken by the Vladimir Musketeers, the regiment formed a square to resist the Russian cavalry.

Count Jean Marbot, a staff aide Augereau sent to recall the 14th after others had perished in the same attempt, arrived at its position only to be told by the surviving senior officer that there was no chance to retreat, and he should go to the emperor and give him the farewells of the regiment. Marbot survived, though he was gravely wounded during his escape. Somewhere between half and three-quarters of the 14th Line’s soldiers were lost, including all but a couple of its officers.

Meanwhile, the VII Corps’ other division kept to the correct line of advance but came up against the Russian line without the support of the rest of Augereau’s troops, and was repulsed in its turn.

General Bennigsen now deployed reserves to exploit the French failure, and these advanced on Eylau itself, where Napoleon had stationed himself in the church steeple. The Russian column from the 7th Division broke in among the French hospitals and reached the very center of the position. Napoleon himself was threatened, protected only by the duty squadron of cavalry with his headquarters. The French rapidly deployed regiments of Imperial Guard infantry and a brigade of cavalry, but the Russians were closer to the emperor.

The duty squadron saved Napoleon. The cavalrymen charged to their deaths but gained enough time for the Guard infantry to deploy. The Guard took the Russians with the bayonet. A shot severed the flagstaff of one of the Guard regiments, passing through the uniform coat of the sergeant holding it, but the eagle, the Napoleonic unit emblem, was saved. French cavalry then hit the Russians from the rear. A captain of the Guard recorded, “the carnage was fearful and continuous.” The Russian troops disintegrated.

Nevertheless, French fortunes teetered on the brink. The emperor was in extremis. Soult’s corps had been bloodied, Augereau’s crippled, and it was not yet 11 a.m. Ney, delayed by the Prussians, had not reached the battlefield. Davout’s corps, which had begun marching two hours before dawn, was arriving on the right flank and had driven the Russians from the village of Serpallen, but III Corps had yet to deploy and could not apply its full combat power.

This was Bennigsen’s window of opportunity, the moment he could have struck the French left, rolled up Soult, and crumpled the Grande Armée. Marshal Soult anticipated this and, at one point, when Augereau’s escort entered Eylau, thought the attack had come. No account of Bennigsen’s calculations has survived. For reasons unknown, he let the moment pass.

Napoleon did not. With remarkable coolness, the emperor summoned Marshal Murat, who arrived encrusted with snow. “Are you going to let those fellows eat us up?” Napoleon asked. The emperor committed the Guard cavalry to strengthen Murat’s Reserve Corps. They flung against the Russians probably the biggest cavalry charge of the Napoleonic Wars—10,700 horsemen going against the Russian army in line of battle.

Murat, who favored splendid uniforms, made quite a picture against the stark white of the snow as he took his place at the head of the French cavalry. Hussars engaged the Russian horse in a fierce melee, among other things, breaking through to the survivors of the 14th Line and disengaging a division of Augereau’s VII Corps. The heavy cavalry burst through the Russian infantry positions. The Guard cavalry covered the final retreat. Between 1,500 and 1,700 French cavalrymen fell in the charge, but it gained Napoleon the time he needed for Davout to come into action.

Leading the III Corps was the 2nd Division. It was in action before dawn on February 8, when Russian cavalry engaged it as the French neared the village of Serpallen, the outpost that marked the edge of Bennigsen’s left flank. The 48th Infantry Regiment, which had distinguished itself in the notable French victory at Austerlitz by taking two enemy colors, would try to capture the village. But the Russians sent in more cavalry, and eventually infantry.

Davout gave no ground. Renowned in the French army as the “Iron Marshal,” he fed more troops into the fight, adding a division to his lead force. As his last infantry division came on the scene, Davout extended his line to the right, threatening to flank the Russians and obliging them to conform. This process of extension bent the Russian line and diluted Bennigsen’s force. In fact, when the Prussians reached the battle area, Bennigsen would order them to circle the field so he could send them in on his left, completing the extension.

As the Russian line extended, Bennigsen used his flank forces to push back Davout. At that point one division each from the corps of Augereau and Davout staged an advance.

Russian cavalry drove them back, but Bennigsen expended his last reserves in shoring up the line behind this counterattack. Though the French in Serpallen were briefly threatened, they held, and now the Russian line was weighted on its left.

The Russian commander increasingly worried about being encircled. He applied no more pressure on Napoleon’s damaged units around Eylau, where Augereau and Soult were free to reform their shattered troops. The French line stabilized in the center while Davout kept up the threat to the Russians on the right flank. His 48th Regiment along with other units made another key foray into the farmstead at Anklappen, supported by a concentration of 30 guns the Iron Marshal had assembled. The Russians gradually began falling back, fighting each step of the way.

The Prussians, still fresh, also made a fight of it, and the Russian troops eventually rallied and joined in. They ejected the French from the village of Kutschitten and regained Anklappen.

“Here the brave will find a glorious death,” Davout exhorted his men. “It is the cowards alone who will go to visit the deserts of Siberia.” His infantry redoubled their efforts and stopped the enemy. As dusk fell, both sides had fought to a standstill on the southern side of the battlefield. Only the guns still spoke, cannonading late into the night.

Napoleon had one more card to play, Michel Ney’s VI Corps. The marshal had been slow to move that morning, coming from northwest of Eylau. The emperor had been slow, too—it was only in the morning of the 8th that he dispatched a staff officer to hasten Ney’s march toward the sound of the guns. That messenger found Prussians blocking his way and had retraced his steps to take another route, adding 10 miles to the journey. Although starting early in the morning, he reached Ney only in the afternoon.

Though its most advanced troops had been just seven miles from Eylau late the night before, the VI Corps wasted time engaging small detachments of Prussians Lestocq had left behind for this purpose. Ney thought he was confronting the full Prussian corps and deployed, repeatedly, against what turned out to be only delaying forces.

Urgency did not seize the marshal until the messenger arrived with Napoleon’s summons, despite the surely audible racket made by hundreds of cannons on the battlefield. Orders in hand, Ney pushed forward, thrusting aside the Prussian rear guards as he met them. By 8 p.m. he had troops poised to attack the village of Schloditten, north of Bennigsen’s main position on the road to Königsberg, the last great Prussian base. Indeed, Ney would have been behind Bennigsen had not the Russian commander gradually withdrawn his right flank as the French VI Corps approached.

Ney’s appearance on the battlefield ended any Russian hopes of victory. The French now threatened to cut off the Russo-Prussian army from a key base, and Ney was not far away from joining hands with Davout to complete the encirclement of Bennigsen’s entire force. The Russians defended Schloditten fiercely, lost it, then mounted a night attack with the Tauride Grenadiers in an effort to take it back.

Though the French defended their position successfully, Ney withdrew from the village and inserted an even stronger force into another town farther north on the Königsberg road.

A little before midnight, Bennigsen gathered his senior leaders for a council of war. On horseback amid the snow, bivouac fires all around, the generals surveyed their situation. The troops were exhausted, there was no food, no ammunition. They could not fight another day; Königsberg beckoned. The Russian commander in chief decided he had no options left.

Bennigsen ordered another night march to escape the potential trap.

A little after 3 a.m., Marshal Soult noticed the Russians to his front seemed to be thinning out. By morning Napoleon could see the enemy had left. Only Cossacks were visible in the distance, covering the retreat. Napoleon sent Murat’s cavalry to pursue, but they were in no condition to fight, and any attempt to exploit the action was abandoned. So ended the Battle of Eylau.

It is difficult to say who won. “We had a great battle yesterday,” Napoleon wrote in a letter. “Victory is mine, but my losses are very heavy….The great distance [from France] at which I find myself makes my losses even more acutely felt.” He not only failed to exploit the battle but also quickly returned the Grande Armée to winter quarters. His concern that the army rest for four to six weeks belies the claim of victory. His rationalizations began almost immediately.

To war minister Gen. Henri Clarke, the emperor wrote a month later: “It is possible that to a person who did not realize what was happening the battle appeared doubtful; but I, knowing that my columns were arriving, could be anxious only about the half hour’s snow.”

The Imperial Bulletin issued after Eylau claimed, “The plan of the enemy, which had for its object to…turn our left flank, has completely miscarried, and its attempt to carry it into execution had proved exceedingly fatal to them.” The bulletin attributed victory to Davout’s move on the Russian left.

It is true that the French maneuvers obstructed the Russian strategic plan, and also that Davout’s intervention at the battle had turned the tide. Yet beyond that the French could claim none of the appurtenances of success: there were no great hauls of captured equipment, no great yield of prisoners, Bennigsen’s army had gotten away in good order, and Napoleon was not free to carry out any enterprise as a result of the combat. None of this added up to victory.

From the Russo-Prussian perspective, the French army had been bloodied and the Prussian monarchy gained time. However, since Napoleon had been in winter quarters at the outset of Bennigsen’s offensive, that result—except for the blood— was no different from what portended without it. A Russian army had fought Napoleon himself to a virtual standstill, and until Eylau in 1807 no enemy had stood successfully before the French emperor.

But a draw was not victory. Moreover, forced back on Königsberg, Russo-Prussian options narrowed in a way consistent with defeat. Nevertheless, at least they had bought several months in which to reconstitute their forces. The last campaign of the War of the Fourth Coalition would be fought all over again come summer. At least it would not be snowing.

Historians have held varied opinions on these events, but most term the result a draw. The modern Napoleonic historian David Chandler called Eylau a “grisly and inconclusive battle,” observing “that the French were left in battered possession of the field, and Bennigsen’s winter offensive had been beaten back, though not decisively.” Kevin Zucker, the most recent analyst of these events, who has made the best study of battle losses, finds them about equal (24,000 Russians and 900 Prussians as against 25,200 French) and terms Eylau a “stalemate on the snow.”

Except for Zucker, most historians fail to comment on the decline in French command performance, the other significant revelation from the Eylau campaign. “The generals and the marshals began to decline,” Zucker notes. “As the campaign took its toll, Napoleon’s orders were less likely to be executed in an efficient manner; the marshals began arguing amongst themselves.”

With some exceptions, Davout and Murat being the most prominent, this observation seems irreproachable. Ney broke winter quarters in the first place, then took his time on the field of battle. Bernadotte completely failed to exert himself. Even after finally realizing that he had been left behind because orders failed to arrive, that marshal made little discernable effort to catch up. Soult and Augereau put in lackluster performances, though the latter could claim some distinction for his determined charge through the blizzard at Eylau.

Vaunted chief of staff Gen. Louis Berthier failed to send multiple copies of dispatches and to coordinate the subordinate commands. In all, the marshals were not at their best.

But all these commanders worked for Emperor Napoleon I. It was he who held the ultimate responsibility, and few observers have focused on Napoleon’s own performance, other than to marvel at his coolness amid the disaster impending the morning of Eylau, which he averted by a series of desperate measures. Apart from, or perhaps resulting from, his personal distractions—matters of state as well as Marie Walewska—Napoleon was late responding to the first indications of the Russian strategic offensive and late to leave Warsaw, he failed to order Bernadotte to rejoin the army with alacrity, and he held too long to a fixed idea he had developed of how the Russians would respond to his maneuvers.

As the French approached battle at Eylau, Napoleon then failed to swiftly summon Ney and Davout, even though he realized the night before the battle that he would be depending on them to equalize the odds. On the morning of the battle, the emperor hastened to assume the offensive, although he knew his force was inferior to that of his adversary. A few hours’ delay to permit the arrival of Davout might have made all the difference to the French tactical position that morning. And allowing Bennigsen to initiate an attack against the Grande Armée in its strong position could have led the Russians into errors that increased their danger. It was not only the marshals who fell short in this winter campaign.

Over the long sweep of the Napoleonic age, it was during these early weeks of 1807 that the French emperor first displayed a pattern of distraction, an indication that his star had passed its apogee. In the aftermath came perhaps the greatest failure: Napoleon either did not recognize—or refused to compensate for—the degree to which his efforts to control every aspect of imperial administration detracted from his field command of an army.

While the emperor’s determination to hold on to every rein of power is understandable, a man of his talent and scope—one who had dealt with all manner of affairs for many years already—should have developed some inkling of the increasing complexities of the 19th-century nation-state. Introspective as he was, Napoleon also must have understood on some level that his attention span was becoming limited. Eylau was a warning shot for Napoleon. Delegating some of his powers would have freed the emperor for the conduct of war. That he did not do so is not only a measure of imperial conceit but also a hint of the onset of Napoleon’s gradual ossification.

There were to be many times still when Napoleon would act with brilliance and verve, but never again with the consistent focus that had marked his rise. Unnoticed at the time, the emperor’s failings at Eylau mark a milestone between his ascendancy and his fall.

 

Originally published in the Autumn 2009 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here

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