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Napoleon at Jena (click to enlarge)

'Fight not too often with one enemy, or you teach him all your tricks of war' - Napoleon

Coming quick on the heels of the stunning French victory at Austerlitz which ended the War of the Third Coalition in December of 1805, the War of the Fourth Coalition of 1806-1807 was instigated primarily by two factors: The ever-meddlesome English who as usual were busy shoveling their gold to the royal houses of Europe hoping yet again to beat Napoleon hiding behind the bayonets of other European nations, the rise of Prussian nationalism and the scheming of Tsar Alexander and Prussia's ravishing superpatriot Queen Luise, referred to by Napoleon as his 'beautiful enemy'.

The War of the Fourth Coalition was basically divided into two easily distinguishable phases, the Prussian Campaign of 1806 and the Polish Campaign of 1806-1807, both of which involved severe losses which would give Napoleon's enemies pause to consider the tremendous cost of trying to dislodge the Great Thief of Europe from his perch and would also give Napoleon pause to consider the costs of Empire-building. Despite the carnage, the war led to some of Napoleon's most prohibitive victories, at Jena, Auerstadt and Friedland, the absolute destruction of the Prussian Army and the temporary removal of Russia as a force in Europe.  In the more than six weeks during which the French forces crossed the border in the late Summer of 1806, the Grand Army had completely destroyed the obsolescent Prussian military system founded by Frederick the Great and had utterly crushed Prussia, reducing her to borders of the previous century.

Despite Napoleon's well-earned reputation as a master strategist and battlefield tactician, and despite having to contend with the ingenius Army Corps system implemented in the Grand Army under commands of the talented French Marshals, Prussian morale in this conflict was high, based not only on confidence propped up by relative ignorance of what it was exactly that they were in fact up against, but also based on promises of support from Alexander, promises that would not be honored until well after the Prussians had already suffered total defeat, with the Russian Army still hundreds of miles away.

Napoleon's 'Beautiful Enemy', the radiant and patriotic Queen Louise of Prussia

On 8 October 1806, Napoleon's troops began their lightning quick strike against King Frederick Willam IIIís forces in the direction of Dresden, Leipzig and Berlin, while his allies carried out diversionary maneuvers towards Prussia's western frontiers. It was an obvious move for Napoleon to attack in force, one calculated upon an astute assumption that the Prussians, with an inferior system and a less than quality high command, would not be too tough a nut to crack.

Over 200,000 Frenchmen advanced their way toward Dresden over difficult German terrain. On 10 October Marshal Lannes' V Corps slammed into the Prussians under the personal command of Prince Louis Ferdinand at Saalfeld, with the Prince ending up dead at the hands of Sgt. Guindey of the 10th Hussars. This was a grievous loss, as Louis was one of the best Prussian commanders in the post-Frederican period.

On 14 October came the main event, the dual French victories at Jena and Auerstadt. At Jena, Napoleon gained an strategically critical victory, but he did it against a Prussian army which he outnumbered nearly two-to-one. Davout meanwhile, was 12 miles away at Auerstadt making history and becoming a textbook general for military academies, just like his boss.

At Auerstadt, the the superiority of French army mobility showed its decisive value in comabt. Davout was marching over the Saale at Kosen when his advance guard came in contact with the Duke of Brunswick's main army. The latter with at least 63,000 men was marching in two columns and should have been able to deploy his men into line of battle twice as fast as the French, who had to deploy from a single body formation and whose columns had opened out in the passage of the Kosen defile and the long ascent of the plateau above. But the Prussians attacked at the old speed of seventy-five paces to the minute, and the French maneuvered at the quick or double of 120 or 150. As usual, French feet were moving quicker than those of their enemies.

One of the driving forces behind the reformation of the Prussian Army following the disastrous Jena Campaign and Blucher's strategic genius, August Graf Neidhardt von Gneisenau

Marshal Davout relied upon a combination of favorable terrain, a lovely covering fog and a carefully planned and coordinated attack of artillery, cavalry and most especially battalion squares to achieve a devastating effect against greatly superior Prussian forces, especially the Duke of Brunswick's swarming cavalry. When Davout saw the spreading confusion in the unsteady Prussian ranks, he ordered the commanders of both his left and right wings to advance against their flanks, collapsing both and successfully achieving a coveted double-envelopment.

As a result of all the factors working in his favor, Davout's badly outnumbered force was consistently able to plug in reinforcements during the fighting where they needed them and when in time to avert disaster. Nevertheless, by midday their strength was nearly exhausted while the Prussian reserve, eighteen battalions of guards under Kalckreuth, stood intact and ready to engage. But at the critical moment the Duke of Brunswick fell mortally wounded and Scharnhorst, his chief of the staff, was at the time absent on another part of the field.

Meanwhile, rumors from the raging battle at Jena, magnified as usual, began to reach the Prussians. These rumors may have in fact influenced Kalckreuth, for when appealed to attack with his eighteen battalions to overwhelm the hard-pressed Davout, he declined to move without the direct order of the commander-in-chief, foolishly replying that it was the duty of a reserve to cover a retreat, and also intimating that he considered himself personally responsible to King Frederick William for the guards entrusted to his care. Even then, the day might have been saved had Blucher been able to find additional cavalry support. The Prussian cavalry, however, had already been dispersed among the various infantry commands, and at the critical moment it proved impossible for them to deliver a decisive attack.

Seeing further efforts hopeless, Scharnhorst in the dying Duke's name initiated the retreat and the troops withdrew northwest towards Buttelstedt almost unmolested by the French who were by then thoroughly spent. So desperate had been Davout's resistance that the Prussians unanimously reported that Davout's strength was actually double its true figure. Very few French marshals could have extracted as much valor from their men as Davout did that day at Auerstadt.

Gerhard von Scharnhorst, another of Blucher's excellent commanders

Marshal Bernadotte, meanwhile, had some explaining to do. As listless and uninspired as ever, Bernadotte had been given instructions by Napoleon to use his own discretion as to movements, a rather strange order given Bernadotte's history of insubordination and lack of interest in assisting fellow Marshals in battle. Bernadotte marched to Dornburg, to a point overlooking the ford across the Saale, and reached there in ample time to intervene either at Jena or Auerstadt, yet he chose to do neither. With the struggles raging before him on two fronts, he remained undecided until at Jena the decision had clearly fallen. And when he did finally stir to action, he arrived with fresh troops too late to be of use for anything but mopping up operations against the beaten and retreating Prussians.

By the time the Prussians realized what had happened to them, they had all but lost the war. Soon the bulk of Napoleon's entire Grand Army was in hot pursuit of the demoralized remnants of the once proud Prussian army. Murat's cavalry alone covered more than a hundred miles trying to bag the entire lot. Before it was over, even stubborn Blucher was obliged to surrender at the end of his own force's retreat north to Lubeck.

Never one to be impressed by the achievements of subordinates, Napoleon initially thought little of reports coming in concerning Davout's brilliant operation at Auerstadt. His initial reaction 'Your Marshal sees double', remarked the Emperor to Davout's courier. Within a short period of time, however, the genius behind Davout's double envelopment of the Prussians (a tactic rarely proven successful in the annals of military history, Hannibal's slaughter of nearly 80,000 Romans at Cannae in 216B.C. is another classic example of it) became self-evident and Davout and his men did in fact get their well-earned praise in the official Army Bulletin. The stunning defeat of the Duke of Brunswick's 63,000 Prussians at the hands of Davout's approximately 28,000 men, a better than two to one advantage, firmly established the fearsome reputation of Napoleon's 'Iron Marshal'.

Prussia's chief diplomat of the period, Karl August von Hardenberg

After the dual French victories at Jena and Auerstadt, there followed a three-week long dogged pursuit of the defeated Prussian army, numerous battles being fought along the way at Halle, Magdeburg, Zehdenick and Lubeck, at the end of which a full two-thirds of Prussia's combined army was killed, wounded or taken prisoner of war and four-fifths of Prussia was under Napoleon's firm control.

In the final analysis, a combination of things did in the Prussians during the campaign. Less than cohesive field command and control structure, an inferiority in organization and tactics (they had not yet adopted Napoleon's ingenius army corps system), inferior weaponry (Frederick's model 1754 muskets were still in use!), tired old Frederican era generals and their utter lack of imagination, and Prussia's arrogant disregard of Napoleon's innovative style of warfare and ability to motivate soldiers and make them fight like lions for him.

All these factors contributed to Prussia's surprisingly quick defeat. The Prussian soldiers themselves were certainly of good enough quality, and their spirit was high. But that alone simply wasn't enough against Napoleon's vastly superior war machine. The good news for Prussia was that this time around they would learn from their mistakes and would eventually do much better against the Grand Army.

On 27 October 1806, Napoleon entered Berlin with Davout's III Corps given the privilege of leading the Grand Army past the Brandenberg gate in recognition of its stunning performance at Auerstadt. Phase I one of the War of the Fourth Coalition was over. In Phase II of the War of the Fourth Coalition, it was Tsar Alexander who sought redemption against the Napolen's unbeaten Grand Army.

Vive L'Empereur!