Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics


Introduction

Fire & Ice

Horse & Saber

Ignorance?

Innovation?

Bibliography


"Heads Up, By God!" French Cavalry At Eylau, 1807 And Napoleon's Cavalry Doctrine

By Cadet Waitman Beorn
United States Military Academy, West Point, New York

Few, few shall part where many meet The snow shall be their winding-sheet" [1]

"Without cavalry, battles are without result." [2]

-Napoleon Bonaparte

I. Introduction

In the early afternoon of 8 February 1807, as a vicious snowstorm darkened the sky and swirled around the bloodied survivors of French Marshal Augereau's VII Corps, large numbers of horsemen massed behind Napoleon's center. A cavalry force of some 10,700 sabers, led by Marshal Murat, readied itself for a desperate mission: charge the center of the Russian line and prevent the them from advancing on Napoleon's ruptured center. [3] Among these 80 squadrons of cavalry sat Colonel Lepic of the Mounted Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard, waiting for the order to advance. Under fire from a sixty to seventy gun battery in the Russian center, he noted some of his troopers ducking incoming shells. "Heads up, by God!" he cried, "Those are bullets- not turds." [4] Moments later, he and his cavalrymen would step off on one of the most magnificent cavalry charges in military history.

The ensuing charge plainly saved Napoleon from a potentially disastrous defeat. Moreover, it represented the Emperor's distinct approach to cavalry and proved its utility, under certain favorable conditions. Unlike many contemporaries and theorists, Napoleon's cavalry was not simply an exploitation force or reconnaissance asset. Indeed, he saw it as a true shock force that could have effects disproportional to its numerical size. His employment of the Reserve Cavalry at Eylau is fully consistent with this view.

II. Fire and Ice: The Battle of Eylau

Winter 1806-7. The Prussian army, hopelessly defeated by the Grande Armeé at Jena-Auerstadt, had ceased to exist as a viable fighting force. Napoleon and his army settled into winter quarters to rest and refit for the inevitable 1807 campaign against the Russians. Unfortunately, it was not to be. Marshal Michel Ney, commanding the VI Corps, "in open contravention of the Emperor's order that no forward movements of any kind were to be made before the spring," had moved forward in search of supplies and forage and had conducted a sweep through Poland. [5] General Bennigsen, in a move uncharacteristic for the time, moved out of winter quarters in response. Using the harsh weather conditions and general lethargy of the French, Bennigsen hoped to completely surprise the French as they lay separated and scattered in winter garrisons. [6] But for some Russian columns being discovered by Ney, it would have worked. Napoleon ordered a concentration of his army and the chase was on after the Russians. This chase would culminate, after many missed opportunities, at the small Polish town of Preussich-Eylau.

On the 5th of February, Bennigsen turned his army around to face the pursuing French at Eylau. The Grande Armeé was close behind. Napoleon arrived on 7 February with his Guard Infantry and Cavalry under Marshals Lefebvre and Bessieres, IV Corps under Marshal Soult, and VIII Corps under Marshal Augereau; this force was approximately 45,000 men. VI Corps under Marshal Ney had been tasked with preventing the Prussian Corps of Lestocq from linking up with Bennigsen. Marshal Davout's III Corps was still en route to the field. Bennigsen faced the Emperor with 67,000. More importantly, the Russian commander had 460 guns to Napoleon's 200. [7]

The battle began by all accounts accidentally. Napoleon's baggage section unknowingly moved into Eylau itself and began preparing the headquarters. However, the town proper had not been secured by the French. The section was "attacked by an enemy patrol, and would have been captured but for the aid of the detachment of the Guard which always escorted the Emperor's effects." [8] This quickly escalated as both sides entered the fray. A French eye-witness, aide-de-camp Baron Marbot noted that "the enemy's generals, thinking that the French wished to take possession of Eylau, sent up reinforcements on their side, so that a bloody engagement took place in the streets of the town, which finally remained in our hands." [9] The town, especially the church and cemetery were hotly contested but the French remained in possession of the town over night.

The Russians began the action at 0800 the next morning with a massive bombardment of the French lines which initiated an artillery duel of sorts. After a provocation of sorts, the Russian right wing under Tutchkov attacked Napoleon's left, Soult's IV Corps. Hard-pressed, they fell back. On his right, the arriving columns of Davout's III Corps were hit by swarms of Russian cavalry. [10] In order to relieve the pressure on the flanks and buy time for Davout to come on line (and hopefully Ney), the Emperor ordered Augereau's VII Corps and St. Hilaire's Division of IV Corps to attack the Russian left. However, due to the driving blizzard, Augereau became confused and swerved to the right, marching into Sacken's 60-70 gun battery. St. Hilaire stayed on course but without Augereau could have no effect on Ostermann's lines. [11] The VII Corps was shattered by artillery and strong Russian counterattacks, falling quickly back on the town. A Russian eyewitness on the field perhaps best describes the scene around 1030:

Augereau's corps was toppled and hotly pursued by our infantry and Prince Golitsyn who had galloped with the central cavalry to support the foot soldiers. The pitch of their fervor reached improbable heights: one of our battalions in the heat of pursuit went way over the enemy position and appeared at the church a hundred steps away from Napoleon himself, which is mentioned by all Frenchmen in their war diaries of that time. It was a critical moment. [12]

Indeed, it was a crucial moment. Napoleon's situation was grim indeed: Soult was hard-pressed on the right, Augereau's decimated corps was barely hanging on to the town itself but for all intents and purposes was combat ineffective, and Davout's corps was not up in strength and his columns were being assaulted by Russian cavalry. All that remained was the cavalry and the Guard. In a decision which we will later see as typical, Napoleon called on his cavalry to make the crucial attack.

III. By Horse and Saber: the Charge of the Reserve Cavalry

"Napoleon had good cause to be grateful to his cavalry arm, which now came indisputably into its own as a finely tempered and practically irresistible battle weapon." [13]

Around 1130, the Reserve Cavalry along with the cavalry of the Imperial Guard began forming up behind the shattered center. 2,500 yards ahead lay the Russian infantry, formed in three lines and Sacken's grand battery of 60-70 guns. The 10,700 men of the Reserve Cavalry and the Guard Cavalry stepped off into the driving snow. The first targets of this thundering mass were the huge columns of Russian infantry marching on Eylau. By all accounts, they were murdered by the French Heavy Horse. As Captain Parquin of the Imperial Guard eloquently relates, "the brave phalanx of infantry was soon leveled to the earth like a wheat-field swept by a hurricane." [14] The Reserve Cavalry swept on, into the flank of some Russian cavalry that had been supporting the infantry attack: "they were charged in the flank by fresh lines of cuirassiers, and cut to pieces." [15] Having disposed of the forward Russian elements, the horsemen drove on towards the main Russian lines. Murat and his troopers exacted a good deal of revenge on the Russian batteries that had bloodied Augereau, "overrunning and disabling much of the lethal Russian artillery as they went." [16] And they swept on. Next the cavalry hit Sacken's lines of infantry. As Marbot describes, "the terrible weight of this mass broke the Russian centre, upon which it charged with the sabre, and threw it into complete disorder." [17] Because of the poor visibility, many Russian regiments were ridden down before they could form square; however, "in other cases, squares were broken up." [18] The charge broke both Russian lines reaching the Russian reserve. The Guard cavalry under Marshal Bessieres was following Murat and in turn broke this line. The true mettle of the French cavalry was now shown as the Russians courageously reformed ranks behind them. Exhausted after having charged a distance of 2,500 yards, the French formed a single column and charged back the way they came, through the Russian infantry and the artillery batteries to reform behind the center; 1,500 horsemen did not return. [19] Colonel Lepic, who was mentioned earlier, found himself and a small group of Mounted Grenadiers surrounded by Russians who called for their surrender. "Look at these faces," he demanded, "and see if they mean anything like surrender!" With that he and his men cut their way to freedom. [20]

What was the effect of this charge? It proved to be the seminal action of the day. While Davout and Ney arrived later in the day to stabilize Napoleon's front, it was Murat's gallant charge that destroyed Russian attempts to break the nonexistent French center. The Russian attacking columns ceased to exist and the Russian second line and reserves were thrown into a confusion that Bennigsen was never able to really sort out. Moreover, it shook the Russian commander's already shaky confidence. Our Russian observer, Davidov astutely noted that "the propitious moment which promised such advantage to our arms disappeared." [21] As Petre notes, "the moral effect of this cavalry incursion into his very centre was, probably, great on Bennigsen." [22] Thus, at the moment when Napoleon was most vulnerable to a disastrous defeat, Bennigsen failed to act, allowing the French to be reinforced by both Ney and Davout's corps and very nearly decisively defeat the Russian army.

IV. Napoleon and his cavalry: Ignorance or Innovation?

"When you are occupying a position which the enemy threatens to surround, collect all your force immediately, and menace him with an offensive movement. By this maneuver you will prevent him from detaching and annoying your flanks."

-Maxim XXIII [23]

The cavalry charge at Eylau, some have argued, was an act of sheer desperation, by a commander who didn't truly understand the proper use of the cavalry arm. However, a careful study of Napoleon's attitude toward tactics and his historical employment of it shows that he, in fact, consistently used his cavalry in this manner and that for the most part was quite successful. While it is difficult to find a doctrinal "smoking gun" to explain Napoleon's innovative use of cavalry throughout his campaigns, the historical evidence is strongly in the favor of this argument. None of Napoleon's enemies employed cavalry consistently in this manner. They were typically much more conservative, using the cavalry for counterattacks, flank security, and pursuit.

Napoleon, on the other hand, seems to have developed a much different doctrine for his horse. He specifically "developed the arm as an instrument for shattering the enemy line, a masse de rupture." [24] Noted Napoleonic historian David Chandler agrees, saying "French cavalry tactics were all based on the shock action of mounted charges." [25] That Napoleon intended his cavalry to be something special, something more than scouts, flankers, or even some sort of reserve counterattack force is clear from his tactical development of the arm. Several concrete factors support this argument. First, the French army under Napoleon was the first in Europe to concentrate its cavalry by type. The grouping of cuirassiers (heavy cavalry) into heavy divisions appears a distinctly French innovation, occurring around 1800 when the French armies were reorganized into brigades. [26] The other Europeans were slow in following this, adopting this innovation late in the wars:Russia-1807, Austria-1805, Prussia-never did, British- late in the Spanish campaigns. [27] By massing his heaviest, most powerful cavalry, Napoleon clearly intended to use his cavalry as a shock force unlike any seen before. Another sign that the cavalry was destined for a pivotal role as a masse de rupture is the leadership given the cavalry. In his analysis of period regulations and formations, George Nazfiger supplies the leadership ratios of Napoleonic cavalry, that is, number of troopers per leader. The French consistently have the lowest ratios of the major powers and of the French cavalry, the cuirassiers have the lowest: from 4.6 to 6.3. [28] Other nations have far less leadership: Russia-7.8, Britain- 6.1, Austria- 8.1, Prussia- 6.5. [29] Numbers are not all, however. Nazfiger also analyzes the position of the leadership within the squadron on the move. The command element of the French Squadron was in front of the squadron with NCOs on the flanks. As Nazfiger correctly points out, "the French system provided a large degree of control on every flank and face of the squadron, thereby ensuring that it should behave as desired in battle and that, once it had completed a charge, it should rally more quickly." [30] The positioning of leadership and their large numbers demonstrates that the French cavalry was destined for the more complicated and dangerous charge against a fixed position than for foraging and flank security operations. The combination of abundant leadership, excellent battlefield control, and homogenous heavy units made the French cavalry a force destined for the charge and the shock attack. Other nations do not show this degree of control and leadership.

The infamous cavalry action at Waterloo, it seems, has portrayed the cavalry charge as a desperate gamble doomed to failure. However, Napoleon historically used a mounted attack on fixed positions effectively throughout his career. Indeed, at Eylau we see the French cavalry breaking Russian squares with alacrity. At the battle of Hof, just days prior to Eylau, D'Hautpol's cavalry (2nd Cuirassier Division), "smashed all resistance by brute force, jabbing at the enemy faces with their sword-points, breaking down an infantry square, pressing their powerful horses through the line of guns and riding down the gunners." [31]

Two other famous battles merit mention in proving the use of cavalry as a true shock force: Austerlitz and Borodino. At Austerlitz, Napoleon employed his cavalry against the formed Russian Imperial Guard to retake the Pratzen Heights. This charge destroyed not only the elite Russian Infantry, but their mounted counterparts as well. These units had formed on the heights and the cavalry were preparing to charge the fleeing French infantry. Napoleon's penchant for shock tactics was apparent to many, including Marshal Bessières with the Guard Cavalry. On seeing the Russian Guards climbing the slope and the French retreating he remarked to his aide-de-camp, "we shall have a cavalry action soon, Laville." [32] The Guard cavalry charged up the heights and annihilated both the infantry and the cavalry. A Guard cavalryman remembers Napoleon himself praising his cavalry saying, "my Horse Guards have just routed the Russian Imperial Guard." [33] On the left, French cavalry was again charging en masse. Ten regiments of heavy cavalry broke the enemy lines; "they overthrew them at the first impact," remarked a horse artillery lieutenant. [34]

Borodino, however, provides the most extreme example of the cavalry as shock weapon. The Russians had created a strong set of entrenchments and were behind them in strength. Napoleon had his opportunity for a decisive battle against the Russians and his cavalry would play a vital, if devastating, role. Twice, he committed his mounted troops in massed charges against fortified positions. First, in the bloody fighting in the flèches, Latour-Mauborg's IV Cavalry Corps was instrumental in driving off the Russians in conjunction with Ney's III Corps. [35] But perhaps the most celebrated of the cavalry actions at Borodino was the charge on the Great Redoubt in the center of the Russian line. The plan for the assault called for the II Cavalry Corps under Caulaincourt to " [smash] its way through the Russian line immediately to the south of the Redoubt." [36] An assault by massed heavy cavalry against a well defended position, this time even fortified, was true to Napoleon's style. And, as Chandler relates, "the French cavalry duly made their penetration and swept into the Redoubt as planned." [37] Borodino was a bloodbath for all, but especially for the cavalry. They suffered huge losses, especially in leadership. But they had demonstrated immense fighting power and bravery, and accomplished the mission. Again, Napoleon had given his heavy cavalry a shock mission completely alien to any other cavalry arm in Europe. And it had succeededÖat a terrible price.

V. Eylau and Innovation?

What was the impact of the cavalry at Eylau? Clearly, it saved the day for the Emperor, disrupting what would have been a fatal attack, destroying the will of the enemy commander to go for the jugular, and buying time for the arrival of two additional Corps. But could it represent something more? Noted Napoleonic historian David Chandler proposes that "the heavy cavalry probably saw its greatest hour at Eylau." [38] Eylau, seemingly also represents well Napoleon's cavalry innovation: namely, its use as a shock element for breaking the enemy, even when in set or fortified positions. If, as Chandler notes, Napoleon "transformed the French mounted arm from a laughing-stock into a very redoubtable weapon," he also transformed the offensive doctrine that governed its employment. [39] Singular in all the nations of the Napoleonic wars was the employment of the French cavalry as shock troops, using weight and force to break the enemy where he stood, to force a decision. This employment was often bloody and sometimes unsuccessful, but was unique among his contemporaries. Indeed, it was this new cavalry mission, (conduct a deliberate attack in modern parlance) that lends us the magnificent image of frothing mounts, their hooves pounding the ground, while the cavalrymen, cuirasses shining under their colorful uniforms, urge them onward with sabers drawn to glory or death.

Notes

  1. Philip Haythornthwaite, Die Hard! Dramatic Actions from the Napoleonic Wars (London: Arms and Amour Press, 1996), 56. Note: this was used by poet Thomas Campbell to describe the battle of Hohenlinden but, in agreement with the author, it is equally descriptive in describing Eylau.
  2. Gunther E. Rothenburg, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press), 72.
  3. This cavalry force included: Imperial Guard Cavalry- Bessières, 2nd Cuirassier Division-d'Hautpol, 1st Dragoon Division- Klein, 2nd Dragoon Division- Grouchy, and the Light Cavalry Division- Milhaud. (Information from Digby Smith, The Greenhill Napoleonic Wars Data Book (London: Greenhill Books), 241-42).
  4. David Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company), 544.
  5. Ibid., 529.
  6. Ibid., 531.
  7. Haythornthwaite, 57.
  8. Chandler; 537.
  9. Baron Marcellis de Marbot, The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot-Vol I. Translated by Arthur John Butler. London: Longmans, Green,and Co., 1892. Online version in the INS Section).
  10. Chandler; 541.
  11. Ibid., 542.
  12. Denis Davidov, Memoirs. Translated by Greg Troubetzkoy in The Journal of the International Napoleonic Society, vol. 1, Number 1, April 1997 (online version in the INS Section).
  13. Chandler; 544.
  14. Captain C. Parquin, Napoleon's Victories From the Personal Memoirs of Capt. C. Parquin of the Imperial Guard, (Chicago: Werner Company), 70.
  15. F. Lorraine Petre, Napoleon's Campaign in Poland, 1806-7, (London: John Lane Co), 186.
  16. Alan Schom, Napoleon Bonaparte, (New York: Harper Collins), 442.
  17. Baron Marcellis de Marbot, The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot-Vol I. Translated by Arthur John>Butler. London: Longmans, Green,and Co., 1892. Online version at napoleonicliterature.com/
  18. A. Hilliard Atteridge, Joachim Murat, Marshal of France and King of Naples, (New York: Brentano's), 163.
  19. Haythornthwaite; 67.
  20. Parquin, 70.
  21. Davidov; (online version in the INS Section).
  22. Petre; 209.
  23. Napoleon. Bonaparte, Napoleon's Art of War. Translated by Lieut.-Gen. Sir G.C. D'Aguilar, (New York: Barnes&Noble Books), 38.
  24. Rothenburg; 71.
  25. Chandler; 355.
  26. George Nazfiger, Imperial Bayonets: Tactics of the Napoleonic Battery, Battalion and Brigade as Found in Contemporary Regulations, (London: Greenhill Books), 194.
  27. Ibid.
  28. Ibid; 178.
  29. Ibid; 183.
  30. Ibid; 183.
  31. David Johnson, Napoleon's Cavalry and its Leaders, (New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers), 52.
  32. Ibid., 41.
  33. Maurice Barres, Memoirs of a Napoleonic Officer, (New York: Dial Press), 76.
  34. Johnson; 41.
  35. Owen Connelly, Blundering to Glory: Napoleon's Military Campaigns, (Wilmington: Scholarly Resources Inc), 169.
  36. Chandler; 805.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Ibid; 356.
  39. Ibid.

Bibliography

Atteridge, A. Hilliard. Joachim Murat, Marshal of France and King of Naples. New York: Brentano's, 1911.

Barres, Maurice. Memoirs of a Napoleonic Officer. New York: Dial Press, 1925.

Chandler, David. The Campaigns of Napoleon. New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1966.

Connelly, Owen. Blundering to Glory: Napoleon's Military Campaigns. Wilmington: Scholarly Resources Inc., 1987.

Davidov, Denis. "Memoirs." Translated by Greg Troubetzkoy in The Journal of the International Napoleonic Society, vol. 1, Number 1, April 1997 (online version in the INS Section).

Bonaparte Napoleon. Napoleon's Art of War. Translated by Lieut.-Gen. Sir G,C, D'Aguilar. New York: Barnes&Noble Books, 1995.

Haythornthwaite, Philip J. Die Hard! Dramatic Actions from the Napoleonic Wars. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1996.

Johnson, David. Napoleon's Cavalry and its Leaders. New York: Holmes and Meier Publishers, 1978.

Lachouque, Henry. The Anatomy of Glory: Napoleon and his Guard. Translated by Ann S. K. Brown. Providence: Brown University Press, 1961.

Marbot, Baron Marcellis de. The Memoirs of Baron de Marbot-Vol I. Translated by Arthur John Butler. London: Longmans, Green,and Co., 1892. Online version at napoleonicliterature.com

Nazfiger, George. Imperial Bayonets: Tactics of the Napoleonic Battery, Battalion and Brigade as Found in Contemporary Regulations. London: Greenhill Books, 1996.

Nosworthy, Brent. With Musket, Cannon and Sword: Battle Tactics of Napoleon and His Enemies. New York: Sarpedon, 1996.

Parquin, Captain C. Napoleon's Victories From the Personal Memoirs of Capt. C. Parquin of the Imperial Guard. Chicago: Werner Company, 1893.

Petre, F. Lorraine. Napoleon's Campaign in Poland, 1806-7. London: John Lane Co., 1907.

Rothenburg, Gunther E. The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978.

Schom, Alan. Napoleon Bonaparte. New York: Harper Collins, 1997.

 

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