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On the night of November 5, 1805, two men and a woman secretly entered the crypt of the Church of the Garrison at Potsdam near Berlin. At exactly midnight, the three joined hands over the coffin of Friedrich II, king of Prussia — Frederick the Great — and swore to overthrow ‘The Monster,’ as they and many other Europeans called Napoleon Bonaparte, emperor of the French. Making the oath were Friedrich Wilhelm III, king of Prussia; his wife, Queen Louise von Mecklenburg-Strelitz, so beautiful that a contemporary described her as ‘an apparition from a fairy tale’; and Tsar Alexander I of Russia.

Within a month of their solemn agreement, however, that oath was in jeopardy. On December 2, 1805, Napoleon crushed a combined Austro-Russian army at Austerlitz, a victory that left him in control of most of Western Europe. The Austrians were forced to sign the humiliating peace treaty of Pressburg, and Alexander’s Russian army had to retreat homeward, technically still at war with France, but defeated and exhausted.

But where were the Prussians? Despite Friedrich Wilhelm’s assurance of support, the pace of events had moved too fast. By the time that the king’s foreign minister, Christian Graf von Haugwitz, managed to meet with Napoleon, the French emperor had already destroyed the Austro-Russian armies. Instead of delivering an ultimatum, Haugwitz abruptly reversed his stance, offered his warmest congratulations and agreed to a treaty with France. Under its terms Prussia ceded the principalities of Ansbach, Cleve, Neufchatel and Wesel to France. In return Prussia received the right to occupy the kingdom of Hanover, then the property of George III, king of Great Britain. When word of Friedrich Wilhelm’s duplicity became public, Britain promptly declared war on Prussia.

For Prussia, worse was to follow. On July 17, 1806, Napoleon concluded the Treaty of the Confederation of the Rhine. Fifteen German rulers, sniffing the prevailing wind, agreed to secede from the Holy Roman Empire and the protection of defeated Emperor Francis II of Austria and become members of a Confederation of the Rhine under Napoleon’s protection. The 15 pledged to shelter French troops and to raise contingents of soldiers to aid them in any war they might fight.

Friedrich Wilhelm now feared war with France and tried to forestall pressure from the growing war party in his government, one of whose leaders was Queen Louise. When Napoleon offered to return Hanover to George III in exchange for peace with Britain, however, the Prussian king was furious. He wrote to Tsar Alexander on August 9, ‘If Napoleon is treating with London about Hanover, he will destroy me.’ The Prussians secretly started preparing for war with France. Friedrich Wilhelm began to seek allies. A flurry of new treaties with Russia, still eager to overthrow Napoleon, and an agreement with England led to the formation of a new coalition — the fourth — against France.

Supremely confident of victory, the Prussians bragged that clubs would be all they needed to thrash Napoleon’s French ‘cobblers.’ Berliners cheered wildly when Queen Louise, wearing a crimson and blue colonel’s uniform, paraded before the regiment of dragoons that bore her name. French Lieutenant Jean Baptiste Antoine Marcellin de Marbot, then in Berlin as an envoy to the Prussian government, recalled, ‘The officers whom I knew ventured no longer to speak to me or salute me; many Frenchmen were insulted by the populace; the men-at-arms of the Noble Guard pushed their swagger to the point of whetting their sword-blades on the stone steps of the French ambassador’s house.’ On October 7, 1806, Friedrich Wilhelm sent an insulting ultimatum to Napoleon, giving the emperor just two weeks to remove all French soldiers east of the Rhine and demanding that France give up all territory acquired since 1794.

To knowledgeable observers, Prussian confidence was out of place. As early as 1789, a French politician noted, ‘The Prussian monarchy is so constituted that it could not cope with calamity.’ The much-vaunted Prussian army of Frederick the Great had rested on its laurels and lacked recent experience in combat. In peacetime there was scant provision for large units to exercise together. In time of war brigades and divisions were organized ad hoc, leaving commanders little time to train or get to know their units. There were no army reserves of artillery or cavalry, or more important, any staff organization worthy of the name.

Most of those problems stemmed from the fact that the officer corps was old and hidebound. Many of Prussia’s highest-ranking officers had been junior officers during the Seven Years’ War; by 1806, of 142 generals, four were over 80 years of age, 13 were over 79, and 62 over 60, while 25 percent of the regimental and battalion commanders were over 60.

The Prussian mobilization was disorderly and incomplete. Young Captain Carl Maria von Clausewitz wrote that the Prussian army had 210,000 men, but such large detachments were held back in Poland and Silesia that the actual number of men available to face Napoleon was not more than 110,000.

To compound the army’s problems, the king divided his army into three commands. The first, 60,000 men, was commanded by 71-year-old Duke Carl of Brunswick, nephew and pupil of Frederick the Great. The second, 22,000 men, was under 60-year-old Friedrich Ludwig, Prince of Hohenlohe-Ingelfingen. The third, 28,000 men, was commanded by General Ernst Philipp von Rüchel. Brunswick nominally commanded the entire force, but the other commanders felt free to propose their own plans and did so. To allay friction among the commanders, the king decided to accompany the Duke of Brunswick’s headquarters, taking with him his own military advisers, the Ober Kriegs Kollegium, or Army Council. Even Queen Louise and her ladies felt they might be useful, so they came along too. Little wonder that Clausewitz wrote, ‘The future looks forbidding to me.’

For the Prussians, the prudent course of action would be to remain on the defensive until the Russian army, 120,000 strong, arrived and then overwhelm Napoleon with superior numbers. They had no intention of doing so. The Prussian plan was to seize the initiative, surprise the French army and drive it back over the Rhine. On September 13, 1806, the Prussians occupied neighboring Saxony, adding a Saxon corps of 20,000 to Hohenlohe’s force. By September 25, the three Prussian forces, now totaling about 130,000, were concentrated on a line centered on Erfurt and stretching 55 miles from Eisenbach in the west to Jena in the east. Rüchel, with 28,000 troops, was at Eisenbach, Brunswick at Erfurt with 60,000 and Hohenlohe, with 42,000, at Jena. The line, located 150 miles southwest of Berlin, put the Prussian army in a good position to protect the capital and to strike at the French army, centered at Bamberg, 75 miles to the south. But the Prussian commanders then squandered several days holding councils of war, trying to reach a consensus about what to do next. By October 7, General Gerhard Johann David von Scharnhorst, Brunswick’s chief of staff, was so exasperated that he wrote: ‘What we ought to do, I know right well. What we shall do, God only knows.’

Meanwhile, at the Château de Saint-Cloud in Paris in a second-floor office overlooking the park, ‘The Monster’ was studying his maps. Napoleon was fully informed about the Prussians’ plans and had no intention of waiting on the defensive. His own plan was to destroy the Prussians before the Russians could arrive.

To do so he would employ two of his classic strategic maneuvers. First, using a manoeuvre sur position centrale — maneuver on the central position — he would insert the French army between the Prussian and the approaching Russian armies. At the same time, he would employ a manoeuvre sur les derrières — maneuver on the enemy’s communications — to interpose the French army between the Prussian army and Berlin. (In time this maneuver would become known as the manoeuvre d’Iéna or the manoeuvre de Saale.) To protect Berlin, the Prussians would be forced to give battle. Napoleon would destroy the Prussians, then turn to deal with the Russians.

The key to those maneuvers was secrecy and speed. To hide his army from the Prussians, the French emperor would use the Saale River, which ran generally south to north, as a screen between his Grande Armée and the Prussian army. By the time the Prussians discovered his army, it would be too late — the French would already be behind them.

The speed would be provided by the legs of his soldiers. To the Prussians, marching 15 miles seemed a hard day’s work. The French soldiers had proved they were capable of forced marches of 20 to 25 miles a day for weeks on end, fighting while they marched, although such treks generally left behind a trail of exhausted stragglers and marauders. Moreover, almost all of Napoleon’s soldiers were battle-hardened veterans. Their generals were young, energetic and experienced — including Napoleon himself, who had just turned 37 the previous month. Finally the Grande Armée was tightly integrated and led by a man of such martial genius that Clausewitz would later refer to him as the ‘God of War.’

Against 130,000 Prussians and Saxons, Napoleon mobilized 167,000 top rank soldiers. His army consisted of the Imperial Guard, 7,000, and the following formations, each led by a maréchal de France: the I Corps under Jean Baptiste Jules Bernadotte, 21,000; the III Corps under Louis Nicholas Davout, 29,000; the IV Corps under Jean de Dieu Soult, 29,000; the V Corps, led by Jean Lannes, 22,000; the VI Corps under Michel Ney, 19,000; the VII Corps led by Pierre François Charles Augereau, 20,000; and the Cavalry Reserve under Joachim Murat, 14,000. In addition to these, there was a Bavarian Auxiliary Corps of 6,000 under Général de Division Prince Karl Philipp von Wrede.

Napoleon arrived at Bamberg on October 6. The following day he received the Prussian ultimatum. That same day, the officers of the French army read a proclamation from Napoleon to their assembled troops: ‘Soldiers! The order for your return to France was already given; triumphal feasts awaited you. But cries of war have been heard from Berlin. We are provoked by an audacity that demands vengeance. Soldiers! There are none of you who wish to return to France by a road other than that of honor; we will not return except by a route that leads under triumphal arches. What! Have we braved weather, seas, deserts, beaten a Europe united against us, gathered glory from Orient to Occident only to return to our country as refugees, having abandoned our allies and to hear that the French eagle has fled before the Prussian army?’

The following day the French launched their 19th-century-style blitzkrieg. Screened by horsemen from Murat’s Cavalry Reserve, the Grande Armée advanced via three parallel roads, one column on each road. The V Corps was to lead the left column, followed a day’s march behind by the VII Corps. The I Corps was at the head of the center column, followed in turn by the III Corps, the Cavalry Reserve and the Imperial Guard. The right column was made up, in order, of the IV, VI and Bavarian corps. The frontage of the whole army was about 38 miles, and its depth was about the same, or two days’ march, so that Napoleon would be able to concentrate his entire strength within 48 hours. The result was a flexible formation able to attack in any direction, a formation that would go down in history as the bataillon carré.

On October 9, Murat’s cavalry and Bernadotte’s I Corps encountered the Prussians at Schleiz, 26 miles southeast of Jena, and after some difficulty, drove them back. Casualties were light on both sides.

The situation became more serious the next day when Lannes’ V Corps ran into Hohenlohe’s advance guard at the town of Saalfeld, about 22 miles south of Jena. The Prussians were commanded by General Prince Ludwig Ferdinand, the king’s nephew, who according to Clausewitz had the potential of becoming the leading Prussian commander of his time. It was not to be. Lannes drove in the Prussian lines and captured the town. The Prussians collapsed. Prince Ludwig led a desperate cavalry charge in an attempt to stem the French advance, but was killed by Sergeant Jean Baptiste Guindey of the French 10th Hussars. The prince’s force of 8,000 was effectively destroyed, losing a third of its strength killed, wounded or captured. French losses were light.

The sound of distant guns at Saalfeld alarmed the Prussian headquarters. The Prussian high command realized Napoleon was about to outflank them. Brunswick began to concentrate his army and shift it to the east to meet the advancing French. He hurriedly sent out orders to Rüchel to join the main army, which would move to Weimar, midway between Erfurt and Jena, about 12 miles west of the latter. Hohenlohe was to remain at Jena to cover the left flank.

When he received his orders, Hohenlohe decided to withdraw from Jena proper and form a defensive camp on the Landgrafenberg plateau, situated west of the Saale above the town. By then the nervousness in the Prussian high command had communicated itself to the rank and file. At noon of the 11th, as Hohenlohe’s soldiers were filing through the narrow streets of Jena, a hussar with a bloodstained bandage around his head came galloping down the road from Weimar shouting: ‘Get back! Get back! The French are upon us.’ Some frightened Prussian artillerymen turned around their gun teams and galloped back into the town, colliding with the infantry columns. In an instant Hohenlohe’s entire army dissolved in panic. It took hours for the Prussian officers to gather up their soldiers.

When word reached Napoleon of these Prussian movements, he issued orders to wheel the whole French army to the left, roughly onto the line of the Saale. By the time those moves had been completed, the army would be ranged on a 30-mile front from Kahla, about 10 miles south of Jena, to Naumburg, about 20 miles north of Jena. The French army was now to the east and north of the Prussians — and nearer to Berlin.

About noon on October 12, the Prussian high command received news of the French arrival at Naumburg, throwing it into something approaching panic. A council of war was ordered immediately, and first thing the following day the Prussian leaders gathered to decide what to do.

Meanwhile, at daybreak on October 13, while the Prussian leaders were still gathering for their meeting, Lannes’ V Corps was probing its way through a thick mist along the road to Jena. The French occupied Jena, and Lannes, accompanied by a handful of infantry, gained the Landgrafenberg plateau above the town. As the mist lifted, Lannes, observing from the Windknolle — a knoll occupied by a number of windmills — saw all 40,000 of Hohenlohe’s Prussians stretching before him upon the plateau of Jena. Within minutes Lannes’ aides-de-camp were spurring their horses down the road to Napoleon’s headquarters.

Enfin le voile est déchiré (At last the veil is torn aside),’ observed Napoleon. By early afternoon, he was on his way to Jena; Soult’s IV Corps, Ney’s VI Corps, Augereau’s VII Corps and the Imperial Guard were advancing to Jena by forced marches; and Davout’s III Corps and Bernadotte’s I Corps were alerted to march to the sound of the guns if they heard cannon fire at Jena.

Meanwhile the Prussians had had their meeting. Instead of facing the French in battle, they decided that Brunswick’s main army would withdraw toward Leipzig, 50 miles to the northwest — and 90 miles south of Berlin — to head off the French advance. Hohenlohe would defend the line of the Saale until Brunswick and Rüchel were safely away.

By nightfall, however, the head of Brunswick’s main army had reached Auerstädt, directly across the Saale from Naumburg. The rest of his force was stretched out all the way back to Weimar, 23 miles away, where Rüchel’s army was still waiting for the roads to clear, the victim of atrocious Prussian staff work. Meanwhile, on the Landgrafenberg stood Lannes’ V Corps and the Imperial Guard, while Soult’s IV Corps, Ney’s VI Corps and Augereau’s VII Corps were close by. Bernadotte’s I Corps was just south of Naumburg.

That night Napoleon, holding a lamp, personally directed his gunners as they struggled to move artillery pieces up the steep, narrow defiles toward the Landgrafenberg, where the French soldiers were packed like sardines. Jean-Roche Coignet, a grenadier in the Imperial Guard, recalled: ‘We were obliged to grope our way along the edge of the precipice; not one of us could see the other. It was necessary to keep perfect silence, for the enemy was near us.’

Hohenlohe believed the French constituted only an advance guard, screening the flank of the main French army while it passed to the east. Consequently he placed only 8,000 men to his front, anchored by the villages of Cospeda on his left and Closewitz on his right.

At 6 a.m. on October 14, the French attack rolled forward through a thick morning mist. Napoleon’s first act was to secure sufficient space on the plateau to allow his close-packed army to deploy. To attain that goal, Lannes’ V Corps marched to attack Closewitz, a half mile ahead through the fog. As space opened up on the plateau, Augereau’s VII Corps swung up on Lannes’ left and struck for Cospeda, while Soult’s IV Corps deployed to support Lannes’ right. The Imperial Guard remained in reserve.

Lannes’ advance on Closewitz went astray in the heavy mist, but eventually he captured the village, while Augereau took Cospeda. Meanwhile Soult moved up on Lannes’ right. The weight of three French corps slowly forced the Prussians back across the plateau. About 9 a.m. it began to occur to Hohenlohe that he was facing something more than a French advance guard, and he sent urgent messages to Rüchel at Weimar begging for help. By 10 a.m., the fog had lifted. The Prussians had been forced back about two miles to a second line of villages, Vierzehnheiligen on the Prussian left and Isserstadt on the right. There, they repulsed repeated attacks, and the French advance ground to a halt. ‘The sun came out,’ recalled Coignet, ‘and lighted up the beautiful plateau. Then we could see in front of us. On our right we saw a handsome carriage drawn by white horses; we were told that it was the Queen of Prussia, who was trying to escape.’

By 11 a.m., Ney’s VI Corps was on the scene, and Napoleon launched another full-scale attack. Augereau captured Isserstadt, Ney took Vierzehnheiligen, and Soult turned the Prussian left. By 1 p.m., Hohenlohe had committed all his reserves; every one of his soldiers was in combat. Rüchel’s arrival was desperately awaited as more and more French troops swarmed onto the plateau. At that hour, Napoleon ordered an advance across the whole line, and the exhausted Prussians collapsed. Napoleon unleashed Murat’s reserve cavalry, and the collapse turned into a rout. By 3 p.m., the Prussians were streaming west from the field with the French cavalry in hot pursuit. The pursuit paused about two miles from the battlefield at the village of Capellendorf as the French ran into Rüchel coming up from Weimar. With an astonishing lack of appreciation for the situation, Rüchel, described by Clausewitz as a man who was ‘energetic but who lacked intellect,’ led his 15,000 men right through Hohenlohe’s madly fleeing soldiers and tried to attack the French. By 4 p.m., Rüchel’s men had joined Hohenlohe’s routed masses, and the Battle of Jena was over.

Some 50,000 panicky Prussians were now fleeing. The French had lost about 6,500 of the 54,000 men who had actually been engaged. Prussian losses are unknown but have been estimated at about 25,000.

Napoleon returned to his headquarters believing that he had just crushed the main Prussian army. He was wrong. At Naumburg, 18 miles north of the Jena battlefield, 36-year-old Louis Nicholas Davout — balding and myopic but determined to persevere — was locked in battle with Brunswick.

At 3 a.m. on October 14, Davout received orders from Napoleon, written at 10 p.m. on October 13 at his bivouac on the plateau above Jena. The emperor wrote he had identified a Prussian army deployed about 2 1/2 miles away and extending from the heights of Jena to his front as far as Weimar. He intended to attack in the morning. He directed Davout to march across the Saale pass through the village of Auerstädt, then swing south and fall on the rear of the Prussians. The message added, ‘If Marshal Bernadotte is with you, you will be able to march together, but the Emperor hopes that he will be in the position indicated to him, that is, at Dornburg.’

Davout issued orders for the III Corps to advance, then went to see Bernadotte, whose I Corps had marched into Naumburg the previous evening. Davout gave Bernadotte a copy of the emperor’s orders and invited him to join him in the advance on Auerstädt. Bernadotte, however, had no desire to be associated with Davout. He chose to assume that the emperor wished him to go to Dornburg, located on the east bank of the Saale halfway between Naumburg and Jena, and marched his I Corps off to the south, where he would fail to support either Napoleon or Davout. After the battle Napoleon prepared a court-martial indictment for Bernadotte, but the wily Gascon escaped with a severe tongue-lashing.

So it was that early on the 14th, when the III Corps moved through the heavy morning mist across the Saale to Auerstädt, Davout’s 28,000 men found themselves attacked by 52,000 Prussians, with no hope of support. Early in the fighting the French managed to capture the village of Hassenhausen, and Davout deployed his three divisions nearby despite repeated charges by Prussian cavalry led by 63-year-old Lt. Gen. Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. By 8:30 a.m., Davout’s steady infantry had routed Blücher’s cavalry, but the Prussian infantry was arriving in force. Over the course of the day, the French repeatedly blocked Prussian attacks, largely because the Prussians attacked piecemeal, with each division advancing in isolation and being defeated in detail. At 11 a.m., when the Prussians had exhausted their efforts, Davout ordered a French advance, and the Prussians collapsed.

Brunswick was mortally wounded during the battle, leaving it for Friedrich Wilhelm to give the command to abandon the field. When it was over, Davout had inflicted 10,000 casualties and taken 3,000 prisoners, but his own casualties totaled 7,000 — very heavy relative to his strength. Only the lack of French cavalry for pursuit prevented another Prussian rout. Over the next few weeks a relentless French pursuit bagged enemy survivors and bluffed Prussian fortresses into surrender. By November 10, barely a month after Jena-Auerstädt, Prussian might was no more. In just 33 days, the Grande Armée had killed 20,000 Prussians and taken 140,000 prisoners, along with 800 pieces of artillery and 250 colors and standards. But the war did not end. The Monster would need two more campaigns to force Friedrich Wilhelm, Queen Louise and Alexander I to the conference table.

Still, each of the two French achievements on October 14 bore its distinctive stamp. ‘At Jena, Napoleon won a battle he could not lose,’ wrote historian François-Guy Hourtoulle. ‘At Auerstädt, Davout won a battle he could not win.’

On October 24, the Grande Armée began to parade through Berlin, led by the soldiers of Davout’s III Corps, whom Napoleon had given the honor of being the first to enter the city. ‘It was a fine autumn day,’ recalled Quartermaster Charles Parquin, a cavalryman in the French 20th Chasseurs. ‘The city was beautiful, yet it looked depressing. All the shops were closed, and no one was at the windows. In the streets there were a few people and no carriages at all. The only sound to be heard was the rumble of our guns and wagons.’

Lieutenant Marcellin de Marbot rode through the city too. ‘My first feeling on returning to Berlin,’ he wrote, ‘…was one of sympathy with a patriotic population thus brought low by defeat, invasion and the loss of relations and friends. The entry of the ‘Noble Guard,’ however, disarmed and prisoners aroused in me very different sentiments. The young officers who had sharpened their sabers on the steps of the French Embassy were now humble enough. They had begged to be taken round, not through Berlin; not caring to be paraded in view of the inhabitants who had been witnesses of their old swagger. For this very reason the Emperor gave directions to the troops guarding them to march them through the street in which the French Embassy stood.’

On October 26, Napoleon visited the tomb of Frederick the Great. ‘He walked rather hurriedly at first,’ wrote a witness, ‘but as he drew near the church, he moderated his pace, which became slower still and more measured as he approached the remains of the great king to whom he had come to pay homage. The door of the monument was open; and he stopped at the entrance in a grave and meditative attitude. His glances seemed to penetrate the gloom which reigned around these august ashes, and he remained there nearly ten minutes, motionless and silent, as if absorbed in profound thought.’

James W. Shosenberg, a member of the Société française d’histoire napoléonienne and a fellow of the International Napoleonic Society, writes from Oshawa, Canada. For further reading, he suggests: Napoleon’s Conquest of Prussia, 1806, by F. Loraine Petre; or Notes on Prussia During the Great Catastrophe 1806, by Carl von Clausewitz.

This article was originally published in the October 2006 issue of Military History magazine. For more great articles be sure to subscribe to Military History magazine today!