THE GUARD, DURING THE TWO POLISH CAMPAIGNS, IN 1807.
BATTLES OF EYLAU AND OF FRIEDLAND.
While the lieutenants of Napoleon completed the conquest of Prussia, he was in Berlin with his Guard. This capital was a center from where he directed all the movements of his army. However the Emperor left Berlin on November 25, 1806, to go to Posen, where a suspension of hostilities was concluded with the Russian army, but which they refused to ratify. Napoleon thus positioned himself on the Vistula to await the new enemies whom he was going to have to fight.
These new enemies were none other than the Emperor Alexander. The cabinet of Saint Petersburg could not tolerate the domination by the French in most of Germany. Also, as of the 20th of the same month, the Czar declared war with Napoleon; but this declaration was hardly known by him; that Russia was threatened by a very united Poland: that was to be. This heroic country, overcome, divided, parceled out, striped so to speak from its rank among nations, had found asylum, for its Generals children, only in our Republican Army. They had fought in Italy, in Egypt, beside the soldiers of Rivoli and of the Pyramids. The Poles, though subjected to a foreign yoke, were accustomed to turn a glance of hope towards us they were with us while they waited their safety and their freedom. No disappointment had still misled their confidence; the presence of our troops in Poland thus excited on their territories a general enthusiasm. The devotion of which they hastened to give evidence to Marshal Davoust, first entering their territory, further increased when Napoleon established his headquarters at Posen. The partisans of old independence went as a crowd to meet the head of that which they looked to be their liberator. Without doubt Napoleon nourished at the bottom of his heart the thought of returning a fatherland to these oppressed. Twice he appeared to have the possibility of it, in 1807 and 1812, and twice due to fatal circumstances, unforeseen difficulties, considerations of high policy, forced him to defer the execution of this General’s project. But in 1807, the hope that the Poles had conceived of finally seeing the reappearance of independence in their fatherland was enough to excite them to assist Napoleon. They took up arms, and formed, under the direction of General Dombrouski, the regiments for a long time allowed in our ranks, which returned, thereafter, significant services in raising French glory.
Our troops thus entered Warsaw. On learning of the occupation of the capital of Poland, Napoleon addressed (on December 2) this proclamation to his army.
“Soldiers! Today a year ago, even to this hour, you were on the memorable field of Austerlitz. The Russian battalions, terrified, fled in rout, or, enveloped, gave up their arms to their vanquishers. The following day they made us listen to words of peace; but they were misleading. Hardly escaping from the disasters of the third coalition, perhaps as the result of too gracious a generosity, they plotted a fourth. But the ally on which they pinned their principal hopes is not already no more. Its fortified towns, its capitals, its stores, its arsenals, two hundred and four twenty flags, seven hundred battle pieces, are in our possession. The deserts of Poland, the bad weather of the season, could not stop us for one moment. You always brave, surmounting all, and all fleeing at your approach.
It was in vain that the Russians wanted to defend the capital of this old and illustrious Poland: the French eagle soars over the Vistula. The brave men and unfortunate Polish, by seeing you, believe that they see again the return of the legions of Sobieski and their memorable exploits.
Soldiers! We will not lay down the arms, until they strengthen a general peace and ensured the power of our allies. Who would allow the Russians to hope that they would determine the balance of destinies? Are we not the soldiers of Austerlitz?”
The Emperor Alexander had brought about great activity to repair the losses of the battle of Austerlitz. The army intended to act in Poland, as a liaison with the Prussian army, presented a total of more than one hundred thousand combatants, including the Russian Imperial Guard, placed under the command of Prince Constantine. Beningsen (sic) commanded as head of this army; but, according to the order of Alexander, he gave the command to the Field-marshal Kamenski, an old octogenarian who, in the wars of Empress Catherine, had shown energy and strength, qualities that his great age had made him lose.
Several partial combat took place as of the opening of this short campaign. The Russians experienced notable losses there; but they were saved from an infallible ruin by mud, which was so thick, that our artillery remained embedded there. Soldiers of the Guard perished there, without being able to be freed. Furthermore, in these painful marches, their courage and their patience did not abandon them in any test. The sight of their Emperor, going in the midst of their ranks, in entirely cramped ways, comforted them. Often a pleasant word, let out to a group, ran through rank after rank, and excited a general hilarity.
Napoleon followed the enemy so closely, that, when he arrived at Nasielle, where colonel Philippe de Ségur, carrying an order of the Emperor, had just been valiantly defended, the Russians evacuated this city. He entered there while cleaning was being completed to the hut in which he was to spend the night: a corpse had remained hidden there under the straw; it was withdrawn almost under his eyes.
The alternating snow, freeze and thaw, made the troops’ marches impossible, Napoleon returned to Warsaw and spent all January 1807 there.
The two armies thus remained nearly one month completely inactive; however, towards the end of December, the Russian generals having resolved to again take the offensive, thought of cutting the French line, which extended from Warsaw beyond the Elbing, and, by breaching it on the Vistula, to separate its two wings. The 23rd of December (sic), they had been thus put on the move and had attacked the cantonment of Bernadotte; but Napoleon, having guessed their plan, had commanded the Marshal to withdrawal towards the Vistula, in order to attract the enemy towards the river. These various movements having succeeded perfectly, Napoleon left Warsaw on January 30, concentrated his troops, and leaving the fifth corps under the command of General Savary, to defend the Upper Bug and Narew, fell on the Russian army with all his Guard and the corps of Marshals Davoust, Ney and Augereau.
The Russians did not have any time to lose: the right wing of their army, already out flanked by the corps under the immediate command of Napoleon, was about to be thrown on the Vistula. The Emperor realizing that the enemy had changed its dispositions, did not want to give it time to establish another base of operations, and pushed it vigorously. Thus thrown out of their line, the Russians withdrew themselves in the direction of Königsberg. But finally, February 7, they stopped their retreat and took up a position behind the town of Eylau, deciding this time to engage in a general affair.
The same day, their rear-guard, which had been established in front of this burg, was ejected from it after a bloody combat, a worthy prelude of the battle of the following day. The clash was not less acute in Eylau: General Barclay de Tolly, supported by the division of Prince Gallitzin, fought their way back twice in the midst of darkness, and did not yield this position, until the third time, under the strength of the Legrand Division, which finally occupied Eylau at ten o'clock in the evening. Murat established himself opposite the enemy, and announced to the Emperor that the Russians had beaten a retreat. The capture of Eylau made this assumption plausible. Napoleon assuming this true, fell asleep due to his excessive tiredness. Since his departure from Warsaw, he traveled or worked twenty hours per day.
The army had also gone for eight days in the midst of the ice and snow; our troops having, that night, carried Eylau by sharp force, the plundering of a city thus taken can hardly be avoided. Half of the regiments had dispersed into the houses. Their reveille was terrible. The Emperor, arisen before dawn, was already occupied passing his Guard in review when the cannonade started.
The Russian General, determined to fight a decisive battle, had decided that he was to try to retake all Eylau. Napoleon placed the Imperial Guard in the cemetery, and sent to Davoust the order to fold back on the left to put himself in line, and to Ney to return on the right. The Saint-Hilaire Division, of the Corps of Soult, which had also occupied this cemetery, alone took the strong brunt of the first enemy effort: one needed the brave men of Austerlitz to resist such a shock. The troops of Marshal Soult suffered considerably, when the 7th Corps (Augereau) emerged to form the center of the French Army and to attack that of the enemy. Snow fell then in large flakes, the air was darkened with one not able to see ten paces.
The Russian General advanced his reserve to face opposite Augereau, while one of his divisions maneuvered to take it in the flank. Unfortunately the corps of Augereau, misled by the darkness, engaged between this reserve and this Russian division; the Marshal only realized anything was wrong when the enemy squadrons attacked him. He ordered them to form squares, but it was already too late. The soaked fusils did not fire, and our troops, attacked from all sides, pounded by forty positional artillery pieces, became victims of the disastrous error of the Marshal, who was carried from the battlefield seriously wounded by a shot to the face.
The Emperor, to disengage the army corps of Augereau, ordered the Grand Duke of Berg (Murat) to charge with the reserve of cavalry of the Guard on the enemy center, which was over extended. In its impetuous shock, the French cavalry bore through the first two lines and arrived at the third, supported by a wood. Here the Russian infantry showed greatest courage: placed in a position to flee or be cut apart, rather than to go it tightened its ranks as soon as our squadrons had broken then and gone on. Charged in their turn by fresh troops, our brave horsemen found themselves forced to retrace their steps. The generals Corbineau, aide-de-camp of the Emperor, Hautpoult, and several other so distinguished corps heads, had remained on the battlefield. The return was no less difficult than the attack, the reformed Russians had faced about; it was only while again charging with the highest resolution that the cavalry of the Guard finally opened a passage.
However, one of the Russian columns, which had pushed back Augereau, had come up nearly to the cemetery, while skirting western main street of Eylau, where the Emperor was with an artillery battery, and not far from six battalions of his Old Guard, which formed a last reserve. Napoleon ordered the service squadron near his person to charge the front of this column, to suppress its ardor and to give time for his grenadiers to arrive; then made, General Dorsenne take one these six battalions of the Old Guard, this elite troop went with shouldered arms to meet the Russian column. Its appearance produced on this column so terrible an effect that it stopped short. Dorsenne having given the order to his grenadiers to fire, they, by a spontaneous movement, answered that they wanted to charge the Russians only with the bayonet, which they carried out at once; then, this same column, after having suffered the terrible shock from this invincible battalion, was charged again by the service squadron. At the height of the action, other squadrons of the Guard crossed the enemy army twice. In the midst of carnage, General Dalhmann, commanding the Horse Chasseurs of the Guard, found a glorious death shared by a great number of his intrepid soldiers, but the Russians were pierced and sabered. The destruction of this corps was noble retribution for the losses of Augereau.
However Saint-Hilaire division fought with even chances against the left of the enemy. The success of the battle was in the balance, the Emperor waited impatiently for Davoust to meet up with the line, as he had received the order from him; this movement alone could bring back victory. Finally, at one o’clock, this marshal arrived on the heights, pushing in front of him the Russian brigades which were opposite him. The enemy General learning that his left wing was outflanked, falling back upon itself in all places, carried a division of fresh troops there; but Davoust, assisted by the dragoons of General Milhaud, crushed this division without stopping, and all the Russian left was pushed back up to Kutschiten. Beningsen, benefiting from the advantage, which he had obtained in the center against Augereau, successively sent all the available troops to support his compromised left. So many joined forces together that they finally stopped Davoust. At this moment, likewise adding to the embarrassment of the Marshal, the Prussian corps of Lestocq, withdrawing from the pursuit of Ney, arrived on the battlefield without being followed, and passing by behind the Russian lines, on their left bring additional help. Davoust was obliged to evacuate Kutschiten, and to take a position behind on the heights of Anklapen. He was in the presence of more than half of the enemy army. Fortunately Ney, to whom the Prussians had concealed their movement, learned by chance that the battle was engaged; because he neither had heard the cannon, nor received orders from the Emperor. He decided to fall back on Schmoditten to attach himself to the left wing of our army. The night was going to put an end to the combat without marked result, when his arrival behind of the right wing of the Russians impelled them to give up the battlefield and to beat a retreat.
The following day, Napoleon successively traversed all the positions, which had been occupied, during the action, by various French and Russian corps. The countryside was covered with a thick layer of snow, which bore here and there deaths, the casualties and the remains of every type; everywhere with broad traces of blood soiled the momentary whiteness of the ground. The places where the charges of cavalry of the Guard had taken place were picked out by the quantity of dead and lost horses. Detachments of French soldiers and prisoners Russian traversed in all directions this vast field of carnage, and removed the casualties, carrying them to the ambulances. It was a horrible spectacle to be seen.
The Emperor stopped with each step, asked questions of the casualties, gave them consolation and help. These unhappy were bandaged; the Chasseurs of the Guard transporting them on their horses, the officers of his house hastened to carry out his orders dictated by humanity.
This lugubrious visit had appreciably affected Napoleon. The man dominated the General, but the heart spoke higher than the head. One of his Generals, seeing him so afflicted by the loss of so many old soldiers, who had at all times, given him the most constant evidence of attachment and intrepidity, made the observation to him that this misfortune had been exaggerated, and sought to put forward, byway of making him forget, the new glory that the day of Eylau would give him: “a father who has just lost his children, answered Napoleon, savor no charms of the victory; when the heart speaks, even glory does hold any illusions.” Noble and touching words which express a true and profound feeling. The bulletin of the army offered, moreover, the trace of the painful thoughts, which tore at the heart of the victor.
The battle of Eylau, where the French Army lost sixteen generals, killed or who died later of the complications of their wounds, is in regard to the number of the combatants, the bloodiest which had taken place under the Empire. Only one fact will be presented to give an idea of the appalling carnage which took place at Eylau: Captain Hugo, today marshal de camp in retirement and uncle of our national poet, Victor Hugo, commanded in the cemetery a grenadier company of the 5th Line, which was exposed to the first fire of the Russian artillery and which lost eighty-one men of eighty-five. All the officers were killed, except Captain Hugo, who however, was hit by a shrapnel piece, making so serious a wound, that his recovery lasted eighteen months.
Napoleon deeply regretted the loss of his aide-de-camp, Corbineau senior, taken away by a Russian ball while he carried an order. This officer had had, the day before, a vague presentiment, that the following day would be disastrous for him.
A few moments before General Dalhmann perished with the dead brave men, he had fallen wounded at fifty paces from the Russians. Hardly had Chasseur Brice seen his General under the enemy bayonets that he ran to him to offer support dismounts, and, under the sharpest fire, raises Dalhmann and replaces him on his horse. Surrounded almost at once by Russian hussars, Brice received several saber blows, including one that disarticulated his left arm; he was about to be crushed by sheer numbers, when one of his comrades, Chasseur Dufour, of his squadron, seeing the position which he is in, pushes through to him and the assistance was enough to see them through the hussars. The intrepidity of these two brave men was used to bring back General Dalhmann close to our lines, while thus saving to him, while still living, the disgrace of being made prisoner.
All the heads of the Guard corps, like their soldiers, deserved and obtained from Napoleon the greatest praises.
Lieutenant Morlay, flag bearer of the 1st Battalion of the 1st Foot Grenadier Regiment, had the pole of his flag broken above and below the arm, by the explosion of a shell which killed an officer beside him and wounded five non-commissioned officers who were with his guard; without being alarmed, Morlay picked up his flag, raised it on the end of a rifle and again quietly taking his place in battle.
Auzoni, Captain of the horse grenadiers of the Guard, mortally wounded, was lying on the snow. His comrades wanted to remove him and carry him to the ambulance. He does not recover his strength except to say to them “Leave me, my friends, I am content since we have victory, and that I die on the battlefield. Make it known to the Emperor that I have only one regret, that I will no longer be able to provide anything more for his service and glory of France!... to that my last sigh.”
In the two armies both sought to dissimulate the losses of the day; but, according to the duration of the action, the vigor of the combat, the number of the pieces of artillery placed in batteries, the loss for the Russians cannot have been less than thirty thousand killed or wounded men; on our side, we had sixteen thousand men put out of combat.
In summary, the Battle of Eylau was only a great slaughter without result, because nobody acquired a gain from the day’s work; but what men and what a troop was this French Imperial Guard!
While themselves withdrawing, the Russians had totally devastated their route; a complete thaw followed once again by rigorous cold, damaged the roads and made impossible the arrival of the convoys of food and ammunition. Napoleon thus decided to return again to the Vistula, and prepare for another time new attacks against the Russian army; our men returned to the Passarge, where they took strong positions. While moving his headquarter to Ostrolenka, Napoleon announced in these terms to his troops the temporary rest, which they were going to have:
“Soldiers! We had started to take a little rest in our winter quarters, when the enemy attacked the first corps and presented himself on the lower Vistula. We marched on him. We chased him with a sword in his back (kidneys) for a distance of eighty miles. He took refuge under the ramparts of his towns, and crossed again the Pregel. You have amassed, at the combats of Bergfried, Deppen, Hoff and with the battle of Eylau, sixty pieces of cannon, sixteen flags, and killed, wounded or taken forty thousand men. The brave men, who, on our side, remained on the field of honor, died a glorious death: it is the death of true soldiers. Their families will have the constant rights to our solicitude and our benefits.
Having thus thwarted all the plans of the enemy, we will move back to the Vistula and will return to our quarters. Those who would dare to disturb the our rest will repent it; because, beyond the Vistula as beyond the Danube, you will always be the French soldiers of the Grand Army!”
Four months were passed in negotiations to arrive at a general peace that the coalition powers did not sincerely wish; but this time was necessary in Russia to repair the losses stricken at Eylau, and in England to bring together the sixty thousand man quota which it had promised to send to Pomerania, in order to take the French Army in the back while the united Russians and Prussians would attack its face.
The peace treaty, which diplomacy had not been able to formulate in four months, Napoleon was to dictate at the end of a ten-day campaign.
June 4th, the hostilities started again. The Russians attacked with no preparation our outposts, and were beaten. Each day was marked by a failure for them, and for the French Army by a triumph. The 5th, while the Prince of Ponte-Corvo (Bernadotte) beat the enemy at Spanden, Marshal Soult crushed two strong Russian divisions at Smitten. The following day the 6th, it was the turn of Marshal Ney, who, attacked in his position on the Passarge at Deppen, pushed back the enemy, and killed or wounded more than five thousand men. Napoleon directed in person all the movements of his army. An enemy corps, twenty-five thousand men strong, including ten thousand excellent cavalry, wanted to stop the march of our troops, which moved on Heilsberg; but Murat, who commanded the advanced guard, formed the cavalry of reserve, successively drove out the Russians from all their positions, and seized Guttstadt, after a combat where the regiments of cavalry of the Russian Imperial Guard were very maltreated.
Napoleon left in observation, in Guttstadt, the corps of Marshal Davoust, and, by the left bank of the Alle, followed the enemy with the remainder of the army. June 10, about midday, our advance guard reached, in front of Heilsberg, its rear-guard, commanded by Prince Bagration, and pushed it back. Heilsberg, containing part of the stores of the enemy army, was covered by entrenchments furnished with much artillery. Around two o’clock, the corps of Marshal Soult being formed, and moved on the entrenchments. The French Army, arriving successively, moved on the city and forced the allies to bend back their lines. Those were then attacked. The fusilier-chasseurs of the Young Guard, commanded by General Savary, were put in motion to support the Saint-Hilaire division; those proved themselves as prodigious combatants with an intrepidity, which marked them throughout all the army. General Roussel, chief of staff of the Guard, who was in the midst of them, had his head carried off by a ball. General Curial, colonel of the fusilier-chasseurs of the Young Guard, was seriously wounded as a combatant at the head of this regiment with his accustomed courage. The night put an end to a glorious combat, and the troops bivouacked in their position of attack. But all announced for the following day one of these battles which would decide the fate of a campaign.
Napoleon remained the day of the 11th on the field; he reviewed there the regiments, which had suffered the most, distributed honorable military rewards to them, and laid out the various corps of his army for the battle, which he intended to deliver. The allied army did not leave its lines; it seemed to understand that this barrier was necessary to save it from a defeat. Seeing indications that the Russian General refused to take the offensive, Napoleon gave the order to Marshal Davoust to make a movement to intercepted the road to Eylau, and made his preparations to attack himself the following day the entrenchments of Heilsberg. With the appearance of these preparations, the Russians started to cross to the right bank of Alle, giving up Heilsberg to our troops, and leaving in our hands the casualties, the stores and fortified redoubts, the work of four long and arduous months. Also, the 12th, with the break of day, when the grand army awoke, to its great astonishment there was appeared no resistance of any kind to its march on the enemy lines.
The Russian General had moved on Friedland, where he wanted to again cross the Alle, to come to Koenigsberg before the French Army; but it was too late. Napoleon had already sent there two of his army corps (Soult and Davoust) and his reserve cavalry (Murat); with the remainder of his army, the Emperor pursued the Russians, in order to force them to fight the decisive battle which they had refused him in Heilsberg.
It was in Friedland therefore, as General Beningsen General, seeing himself pressed by the French troops, solved to fight. The 14th of June, at three o'clock in the morning, the consolidated grenadiers, commanded by General Oudinot (of the corps of the Marshal Lannes), emerged at the village of Posthenen and began the attack. Napoleon, hearing the cannon, exclaimed with the accent of joy: “It is a day of happiness, it is the anniversary of Marengo!” At the same moment, Marshal Mortier, supported on the village of Heinrichsdorf, briskly attacked the line of the Russians.
While arriving on the battlefield, Napoleon reconnoitered the positions of the enemy. Its left, made up of four divisions, under Prince Bagration, rested on one side of the Alle, a little above Friedland, and other on a stream, which crosses the plain and which separated this wing from the right side. These one, three divisions strong, under the command of Prince Gortschakof, and with many cavalry, extended onto the plain, opposite Heinrichsdorf. The enemy, to facilitate his communications, had thrown three bridges over the Alle, immediately beside the city and close to his left wing. Napoleon first of all saw that, to strike a decisive blow, this left wing had to be crushed, in order to seize Friedland and the bridges; and then to destroy the right wing that was driven back onto the Alle. To carry out this significant movement, orders were given at once to Marshal Ney. Consequently, around five o’clock in the evening, this Marshal, protected by the forest of Sortlack, and preceded by a battery of twenty pieces of cannon, were put in motion and went at the enemy; he was at the same moment overwhelmed by Russian cavalry; but General Latour-Maubourg General pushed it back, and Ney continued his movement. During this time, General Sénarmont carried, to four hundred paces in front of the line, a battery of thirty pieces, and, by a fire of grapeshot, crushed the enemy masses. The Russian left wing, thus attacked on the front and by the flank, made an offensive move on the line of Ney; but, pressed by our bayonets, it took refuge in Friedland, after a great loss of men of which, in part was precipitated in the river. The Marshal, seeing the enemy fleeing to Friedland, ordered a quarter turn of his left wing and carried it onto a ravine, which surrounded this city. The Russian Imperial Guard was waiting in ambush at this point; as soon as it saw our columns approaching, it intrepidly emerged and made a charge, which shook for a moment our soldiers, but Dupont’s division, of the reserve, advanced immediately on the Russian guard, breaking it and made a horrible carnage of it.
The end that the Emperor had proposed was reached. The left wing of the Russians was driven back on Friedland, was tightened in a narrow space, between the Alle and the stream about which we spoke. Cannonaded with grapeshot on all sides, and not being able, even on this unfavorable ground, to employ its bravery, the enemy was obliged to seek its safety in escape. Our brave battalions carried Friedland; the streets were strewn with dead, and the Russians crossed the river again, giving up their artillery and large numbers of prisoners.
The destruction of the left wing of the Russians left the right wing without support in the middle of the plain; once that General Gortschakof, who commanded it, was informed of it, he stopped his attacks there and was put into retirement on Friedland, believing to find a rear-guard charged to keep the passage open to him; but, while fleeing, the Russians had burned the bridges. The fire had even been communicated to the city, which Marshal Ney defended the approaches to. Gortschakof, in pressed on all sides, instantly thought at the time to lay down his weapons. Fortunately for him, a ford was discovered, and his divisions could cross the Alle; but this passage was so precipitous, that half of his army corps drowned, was taken or was killed. Only some pieces of artillery could be saved, the remainder left on left bank and fell in our hands. It was eleven o’clock at night: the night was lit only by the flames which rose above Friedland; but the victory was complete: seventeen thousand dead Russians or Prussians covered the battlefield; seventy pieces of cannon, a great number of caissons, several flags and twenty thousand prisoners were the trophies of the day.
The enemy, after the battle, withdrew itself in haste on the Niemen. Its retreat presented the aspect of the most complete rout: with each step, the winners collected prisoners, caissons, weapons and baggage.
The French Army slept in the position where it had fought. Napoleon spent the night at the bivouac surrounded by his Old Guard which, to use a little picturesque expression of one of its more intrepid heads *, “had been calm before the storm remaining with crossed arms all the day;” but the following day, at the break of day, he was on horseback traversing the lines of his troops whose soldiers still slept. He opposed one of them that rose to return honors to him, as that was usual. He then traversed the battlefield of the Russians, which offered a dreadful spectacle. One could follow the order of the battalions by the line of the heaps of their corpses. A philosopher would have said with reason, at the sight of this vast field of death that it was necessary that the sovereigns had quite great interests to favor their people by disentangling them from a similar butchery of men. But the Russian army, though completely beaten this day, had no less a share of glory. The Russians seemed to have grown in these two campaigns of Poland; from there undoubtedly this tendency of Napoleon and Alexandre to meet, at Tilsit.
* General Gros, colonel-major of the Foot Chasseurs of the Old Guard.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2005
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