Action Front! Senarmont at Friedland
By Kevin Kiley
1700 Hours 14 June 1807, near Friedland, East Prussia
The artillery companies were limbered up behind a small rise of ground that masked them from Russian observation. NCOs casually moved down the sleepy, exhausted columns, the Grande Armée's marches not being a pleasurable experience, carefully checking harness and equipment, stopping occasionally to pat a favorite horse, lifting the animals' fetlocks to check tender hooves. Horses cropped at the remains of the spring grass, their swishing tails brushing away the flies while the drivers of their train company dismounted to clean the animals' eyes and nostrils of the bothersome dust. Gun and section chiefs checked their ammunition, ensuring the trail chests were full for immediate use. All ignored the vulgar uproar off to their right near the Forest of Sortlack, getting what rest they could, the horses demonstrating their unusual ability of locking their knees and sleeping standing up.
On that slight rise to their front, two of their company commanders stood puffing their pipes while their bored trumpeters held their horses. They watched the dark masses of Ney's VI Corps spill out of the woods on their right, like an immense blue wave. One of them waved at the commander of one of the I Corps artillery companies that was already forward supporting Dupont's deployed infantry division. He was in full dress, including an immense colpack with tall red plume-he had always been an outstanding showoff. Sharing their one remaining small telescope, one of them had lost the sacre thing in Prussia the year before, the two officers watched in amazement as Russian cavalry jumped Ney's infantry before they could deploy and drove them back towards the shelter of the woods. Russian artillery fire from batteries across the river began to fall among Ney's shaken infantry, causing considerable loss. The two officers remarked admiringly and somewhat surprised, on its accuracy. They could see at least two regiments forming square to stop the Russian horsemen, but the damage had been done. The Emperor would not be pleased. It would take some time for Red Michael to get his infantry reformed.
The captains' attention was suddenly drawn by a shout from one of their trumpeters. Pounding up the slope towards them was one of General Senarmont's aide-de-camp. They wondered what their chief of artillery wanted. At the aide's hail, the two officers quickly mounted and followed him back to the artillery assembly area and into a whirlwind of activity. The other company commanders were hastily summoning their officers and senior NCOs. Junior NCOs were forming the companies for rapid movement, cuffing awake dozing train drivers who couldn't stay awake in the early summer warmth.
Behind the companies Senarmont was conferring with his corps commander, General Victor, and a sweat stained, grime covered senior officer one of them recognized as Marshal Lannes. One captain swore viciously under his breath. They both knew if Lannes was around they were in for a long day. That wry-necked bastard loved to fight. Well, the officers' mess would be short a few members this evening. Suddenly Senarmont saluted, turned his horse and trotted to the front of the massed artillery companies. Politely asking one of the company commanders for the loan of a trumpeter, Senarmont placed himself at the front of the formation and nodded to the youngster. The astonished trumpeter quickly wiped the instrument's mouthpiece, raised his trumpet to his lips, and sounded 'charge' as Senarmont raised himself in his saddle, turned to his companies, bellowed 'En avant' and sunk spur.
The war begun by Prussia against the French Empire in the fall of 1806 had flowed into Poland, mud, and misery against the Russians and Prussian remnants after the destruction of the Prussian Army at the battles of Jena-Auerstadt. The French pursuit that followed was ruthless, Prussian fortressess and prisoners being scooped up wholesale. Only units in East Prussia escaped the disaster. The Russians belatedly came to the aid of their defeated allies, which led to a bitter winter campaign in the miserable wastes of eastern Poland and East Prussia. It culminated in a vicious pounding match at Eylau in the bitter cold and snow in February 1807. Both armies, exhausted and suffering heavy casualties, went into winter quarters to retrain and refit.
Napoleon once again demonstrated his terrible genius for organization, drawing units from secondary theaters to return the Grande Armée to fighting efficiency. Replacing commanders killed or disabled, the toughness of the Grande Armée reasserted itself, commanders ensuring their units were ready for campaigning in the spring and inspections from the Emperor. The armies again took the field in the spring, and after hard, indecisive campaigning, Benningsen, the Russian commander, shoved his head into the tactical sack at the little village of Friedland on the River Alle. Crossing the river to engage and destroy the French corps of Marshal Lannes, Benningsen thought he could quickly dispatch Lannes and recross the Alle without becoming decisively engaged. Knowing that Napoleon was within supporting distance with at least three corps, Lannes sent aides galloping off with messages for help and waged an expert delaying action to fix Benningsen in place. With never more than 26,000 men, Lannes forced Benningsen to commit progressively more troops across the Alle to defeat him. Showing a bold front, and shifting troops where needed to stop Russian advances, especially in the Forest of Sortlack on the French right, Lannes held Benningsen in place until the Frnech had massed 80,000 troops on the left bank of the river. Benningsen was trapped and had to fight. Having thrown all of his pontoon bridges at or near the bottleneck of the village of Friedland, Benningsen had unwittingly trapped his troops on the west bank.
Napoleon's plan was to hold with his deliberately outnumbered left flank, employing Ney's VI corps to deliver the decisive attack on the French right. Ney's preparations were masked by the Forest of Sortlack. Victor's I Corps would hod the center, with Mortier's VIII Corps and the Guard in reseve. As Murat was at Heilsberg, Grouchy acted as chief of cavalry. Grouchy would particularly distinguish himself here, holding the French left very skillfully while outnumbered, ruining what some of the opposing cossacks thought to be a good day. The Emperor wanted to destroy the Russians, not a repeat of Eylau.
On order, Ney's corps debouched from its forested assembly area, the two infantry divisions formed abreast in closed columns. Latour-Maubourg's cavalry division was in direct support. Ney cleared the woods, but failed or refused to deploy, making his divisions compact targets for the numerous Russian artilley on the right bank of the river. Russian cavalry charged the heads of Ney's two divisions while artillery raked them unmercifully. This was too much, except for three regiments that formed square, the rest bolted for the rear.
As Ney's attack fell part, one of Victor's infantry divisions, Dupont's, advanced 'smartly' on the Russian center without orders. Senarmont, Victor's chief of artillery, supported this advance with twelve guns and immediately requested permission to advance with the remaining 24 that belonged to the corps. Permission granted, he quickly organized the companies into two 15 gun batteries, keeping six in reserve. Placing his two batteries on either flank of Dupont's division, he rapidly outpaced the sweating infantry and proceeded to attack the Russian center on his own.
The artillery companies clattered past Dupont's panting infantrymen, the foot artillery gunners running to keep up. Breaking into a charge, Senarmont's companies wheeled into position and began to unlimber. Company commanders' sabers flashed in the June sunlight as they directed their guns into position and shouted their first fire order. Trumpeters' were blowing calls for 'action front!'; well-trained artillery horses responding without direction from their drivers. Panting, sweating gunners caught up with the gun teams, horses snorting and breathing heavy in their sweat-soaked harness. Sweaty, slippery, calloused hands grabbed handspikes and gun trails and the heavy carriages were lifted from their limbers by the grunting gunners. Trails were swung round and the guns manhandled into position by sweat and muscle. More trumpet calls, the rush of gun teams, and the two fifteen gun batteries rapidly advanced by successive bounds towards the Russian center.
Russian artillery fire was beginning to find the range. Men and horses were beginning to get hit; horses screamed and went down, men cut in half or decapitated by the plunging round shot, wounded gunners staying at their posts until passing out from loss of blood. Completely ignoring the Russian artillery fire, Senarmont ordered his companies to concentrate on the Russian infantry to their front. Not satisfied with the range, Senarmont ordered his trumpeter to blow another call. Alert section chiefs ceased fire, while gun teams galloped up to retrieve the guns. Limber up, mount, displace forward. At 150 yards the terrain narrowed so that both batteries had to combine into one. Another trumpet call, echoed by all the trumpeters in the companies. 'Action Front!' Halt, dismount, unlimber, all the while enduring the sacre Russian counterbattery fire. More horses and men were hit and went down, but the gunners coolly, expertly opened fire.
Through the shot filled inferno, Senarmont set an admirable example of coolness to his gun crews. Still, he ordered them forward again. To save the depleted gun teams, the gunners used their bricoles, turning themselves into a 'man team' and went forward by successive bounds to 120 yards. Satisfied, Senarmont ordered halt and the gunners reopened fire. Quickly going to rapid fire, they started to take the Russian center apart-at this range they couldn't miss. Out of range of the Russian muskets, the gunners blew the center out of the Russian line, knocking over 4,000 of them in twenty-five minutes. Back in the Forest of Sortlack, Ney cursed and pounded his two divisions back into formation, leading them back to the assault 'like a captain of grenadiers.' His corps artillery went rapidly into action against the Russian batteries across the river, giving badly needed support to Senarmont's depleted companies. Other French artillery joined in and rapidly built up artillery superiority and silenced the Russian guns.
Latour-Maubourg again advanced and charged the troublesome Russian cavalry, rapidly defeating it. Dupont caught up with Senarmont as the Russian Imperial Guard counterattacked. Dupont led his infantry against the Russian Guard infantry, defeating it in a savage bayonet fight, the shorter, more expert French infantry killing their opponents with lethal upward thrusts. The Russians bolted for the bridges and relative safety of Friedland.
The Russian Guard cavalry made an attempt to silence Senarmont. Advancing against Senarmont's left flank, they had a chance to silence the French guns. Seeing the impending threat, the quick-witted Senarmont immediatley ordered 'Action Flank.' Trumpeters echoed the call down the gun line. Exhausted crews swung the trails to the right, bringing the muzzles towards the onrushing horsemen. Gun captains hands went into the air as their guns were loaded with canister. Trumpets blew, the Russians broke into the charge with a roar, and the French company commanders bellowed 'FEU!' Portfires touched vents, and the guns exploded with a deafening roar and recoiled back sending their rounds down range like immense shotguns. Crew manhandled the guns back into battery, gun captains relaid the tubes as the tubes were swabbed out and another round rammed home, while vigilant gunners thumbed the tubes' vents to prevent an accidental discharge. Quickly arms were again raised, and the command 'FEU!' was again bellowed. The ominous portfires descended and the guns once again roared, recoiled and were manhandled back into battery. Vents again covered, gunners swabbed and reloaded awaiting the next command. 'Cease Fire' was sounded, and as the smoke cleared, the gunners saw the red ruin they had caused. The Czar's picked cavalrymen had been literally blown off the battlefield. Once again, the widows of St. Petersburg would weep.
Pressing their advantage, Dupont's infantry advanced on Friedland and the Russian bridges. Senarmont sent six guns to accompany Dupont's continuing advance, while the main battery supported other French infantry which had joined the general advance. Senarmont brought his companies forward again, so that his guns could literally sweep Friedland's streets. Repeated Russian attempts to reform were broken up by accurate artillery fire. Benningsen's army was rapidly falling apart, Russians either being killed outright or drowning in the river.
Senarmont's gunners had suffered 50% casualties, but the innovative use of artillery had been the decisive factor on the battlefield. Senarmont was one of the best artillerymen the Grande Armée produced. A tactical innovator, as well as a superb combat leader, his performance revolutionized the use of artillery on the battlefield for the next fifty years until the advent of rifled artillery. The new tactics demonstrated that artillery could be used to achieve decisive results on the battlefield. French artillery would be used repeatedly after this to achieve like results. Wagram, Lutzen, Hanau, Ligny, and Waterloo would see French gunners, under other talented artillerymen, use their guns aggressively in support of the infantry. Lauriston would mass the huge battery to support MacDonald's attack at Wagram; Druout would lead his gunners into the inferno of Lutzen at the charge to unlimber and blow the center out of the allied line, followed by the Young Guard infantry; Druout would again mass his 12-pounders at Hanau against the treachery of the Bavarians under Wrede, fighting off allied cavalry in the battery positions as well as silencing the Bavarian artillery; at Ligny, for the last time, massed French artillery companies would blow the center out of an allied line, allowing the Guard infantry once again to assault its remnants; individual company commanders would manhandle their guns to within 250 yards, some to within 100 yards, of the allied line near Waterloo's ending, to demolish English squares at point blank range before the right flank caved in to overwhelming numbers.
Downey, Fairfax. Cannonade New York : Van Rees Press; 1959.
Elting, John R. Swords Around A Throne: Napoleon's Grande Armée New York : The Free Press; 1988.
Esposito, Vincent J., and John R Elting. A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars London : Greenhill Books: 1999.
© Copyright 1995-2004, The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.