Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns


 


The Prussian Army at Auerstadt: 14 October 1806

By Stephen Millar


"Davout sent on the brave and heroic Gudin, with his division, to clear it [the Kosen defile] and occupy the level space on the top, at all hazards. In a few minutes Gudin stood, in battle array, on the [Auerstadt] plateau, though entirely shut out from the enemy by the dense fog. Blucher, with nearly three thousand hussars, was ordered to ride over the plateau and sweep it of the enemy. The former part of the order he obeyed, and came dashing through the mist with his body of cavalry, when suddenly they found themselves on the bayonets' point, and the next moment shattered and rolled back by a murderous fire that seemed to open from the bowels of the earth. Rallying his men, however, to the charge, Blucher came galloping up to the French, now thrown into squares, and dashed, with his reckless valor, on their steady ranks. Finding, from the incessant roll of musketry, that Blucher was meeting with an obstinate resistance, the King of Prussia sent forward three divisions to sustain him. These, with Blucher's hussars, now came sweeping down on Gudin's single division, threatening to crush it with a single blow. One division against three, supported by twenty-five hundred cavalry, was fearful odds; but Gudin knew his defeat would ruin the army, now packed in the defile below, and, making desperate efforts to reach the plateau, presented a firm front to the enemy, and proved, by his heroic resistance, worthy to be under the illustrious chief that commanded him."

Joel Tyler Headley, Napoleon and his Marshals (1846)

The Battle of Auerstadt is considered to be one of the best examples of corps-level tactics in military history. Marshal Louis-Nicholas Davout’s decisive victory on 14 October 1806 was a combined defensive-offensive operation against a much-superior enemy force. Auerstadt demonstrated that a resourceful corps commander leading well-trained troops could, with a little luck, overcome a large numerical inferiority on the battlefield (other good example is GdI Reinhard von Scheffer-Boyadel’s successful withdrawal of XXV Reserve Corps east of Lodz on 24-26 November 1914).

As skilled and tough as Davout’s III Corps troops were – GdD Charles-Etienne Gudin de la Sablonniere’s infantry division suffered a 40% casualty rate – several important factors assisted Davout. The slow rate of the Prussian advance (due to staff inefficiency as well as severe troop congestion in the army’s rear area), the un-coordinated Prussian attacks and the serious wounding of Prussian army commander GFM Karl-Wilhelm-Ferdinand, Herzog von Braunschweig (with King Friedrich-Wilhelm III of Prussia’s subsequently failing to assume command) all worked in Davout’s favour.

The crucial moment of the battle came when OB Gerhard-Johann-David von Scharnhorst (Braunschweig’s chief-of-staff) appealed to GdK Friedrich-Adolf, Graf von Kalckreuth to launch his 18 reserve battalions against the battered – but now-advancing – III Corps. Kalckreuth refused, telling Scharnhorst he required a direct order from the King to launch the attack. With Braunschweig out of action and Friedrich-Wilhelm III failing to assert his authority, Kalckreuth’s reserve remained unengaged (although it later helped to cover the army’s retreat).

The strength of Braunschweig’s Hauptarmee at Auerstadt is usually listed as 52 battalions, 80 squadrons and 230 guns (a total of 50,000-60,000 men). Sources state the Prussians suffered 10,000-13,000 casualties and lost 115 guns in the battle.

It should be noted by researchers that GdK Karl-August, Herzog von Sachsen-Weimar’s Advanced Guard (9 battalions, 20 squadrons and 2 batteries) is often listed with Braunschweig’s troops in Prussian orders-of-battle. This is true at the beginning of the 1806 Campaign, but his formation was later detached and was at Ilmenau on 14 October.

Prussian Army (Hauptarmee)

52 battalions, 80 squadrons and 224 guns (128 guns in 16 batteries + 96 battalion guns)

Commander-in-Chief: Prussen, Friedrich-Wilhelm III, Konig von
Field Commander: Braunschweig-Luneburg-Wolfensbuttel, GFM Karl-Wilhelm-Ferdinand, Herzog von
Chief-of-Staff: Scharnhorst, OB Gerhard-Johann-David von

 

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2004

 

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