Research Subjects: Miscellaneous

A Cursory View of Prussia from the Death of Frederick II to the Peace of Tilsit

LETTER XV: The Battle of Jena


THOUGH, from the motions, both of the Duke’s army and the large detachment which the Prince had sent to Dornberg, as mentioned to you in my last, Bonapartè had supposed an attack was intended, to secure to the Prussians the various passages over the Saale, and had, in consequence, immediately taken his measures; yet the Prussians had no conception that there would be any serious action on the 14th, as, from the position of the French army, it was imagined they would forthwith proceed over Naumberg to Leipsick; it was therefore both hoped and expected, that this day would pass over in quietness, that the Duke’s army might march unmolested to Freyburg, and the left wing refresh itself; for the very worst they apprehended was a possible attack from Lannes and Augereau.

In the field, the Prussians, together with the Saxon troops, had about 110,000 men;—but the Saxons had in general been treated with such disregard, that they had no inclination for the service; and the Duke’s indifference to them, and total want of attention to see the army provided with at least the necessary food and ammunition, disgusted all the troops, who, besides, had scarcely any remains of the old Prussian character; nor were the officers in general, attached either to their commander or the cause.  The commander seemed to have no decided plan, the generals of course issued no decided orders, and therefore there was no one could absolutely determine what was to be done.  The army thus appeared more like a crowd collected without purpose than a regular body of troops, in array to protect every thing that should be most dear to them.  Against such disunited and somewhat dismayed people, imagine you see opposed about 160,000 troops accustomed to conquest, led on by brave veteran officers, with the active Bonapartè at their head to direct the whole; you will then find the result not very difficult to determine; nor will even the recital afford any great display of description, as the day was won before the commander in chief of the Jena division, Prince Hohenlohe, or his staff, then at Kappellendorff, had left their beds!

The night between the 13th. and 14th. was pretty clear; but before the break of day, there rose such an impenetrable fog, that friend from foe could not be distinguished, which naturally caused much confusion in the outsef.

Early in the morning, about six o’clock, the brave Tauenzien opened the battle; but as I have observed, it had been neglected to support him; he was, therefore, after two hours hard conflict, overpowered by numbers, and obliged, after disputing every step of ground with six times his force, to retreat to Fierzehnheiligen and Krippendorff.

The noise of the cannon, during this encounter, at length awakened those at Kappellendorff, where the Prince then was; the staff all ran to him on the first alarm, and found him dictating a report of the foregoing day’s transactions, to be sent to his Majesty, by the messenger who was to conduct Mr. de Montesquieu.

General Zeschwitz then requested the prince’s orders, which were to keep his troops in readiness, but as he had strong reason to believe there would be no serious attack that day, not unnecessarily to fatigue them.—Shortly after, the Prince and the other officers all mounted to ride to Klosevitz, which, however, without their knowing it, was already in the possession of the French.  On their road thither, the Prince passed the right wing, which had just got under arms, the tents yet standing.  He directed them to keep quiet till the fog was dispelled, when, according to the circumstances, he should give this orders.  It seems that the Prince also, like the Duke, was now desirous of avoiding a battle; but hitherto undetermined, whether he should retreat, or attack the enemy on the Hills of the river Ilm, which they already occupied.—Had the Prince made himself properly acquainted with the ground he had to act upon, he would have known that, after Tauenzien’s retreat to Fierzehnheiligen, it would have been rather rash to attempt driving the French from the situations they had gained; but, to await them on such a declivity as that between Ranstädt, and Kötshau, appears to have been the highest degree of imprudence.  He should have retired over the Ilm to Ettersberg, and there endeavoured to reinforce himself.—General Grawert saw the danger more clearly, and therefore, without orders, marched off from the left wing, as he otherwise would have been lost.  This step, however, was taken very much amiss; yet, after a sufficient vindication, a troop of horse were ordered to cover his march to Fierzehnheiligen:  Grawert had scarcely advanced a quarter of a mile, when he received the incomprehensible order to halt—“I will not venture,” said the Prince, “to risque my troops to march in a fog, lest they should be unexpectedly turned by the enemy.  I will rather wait, and entice them down to the plain, where my cavalry will have room to act; or, when the fog disperses, attack them on their post.”

This fatal halt did not give them room to act either below or above; but it gave the French an opportunity to extirpate, because the Prussians were below, and it is easier to dash down, than creep up; for what more then creep, if even called upon, could a poor half starved Prussian soldier do, whose every limb is so laced and confined, that he could not possibly hold out the necessary hurrying stride of up-hill attack; besides, his musket is of little service, as it carries scarcely thirty yards, whilst the French tirailleurs hits his objects at twice that distance:  the proofs they have experienced of this, make them so shy of tirailleurs.  In the mean time, the Prince rode up to Grawertz’s corps, and encouraged the soldiers to behave themselves with the wonted Prussian bravery.  They now proceeded to Fierzehnheiligen, where there was a French detachment, and, after an obstinate attack, forced them out.  They retired to Dornberg, which, as it overlooks Fierzehnheilgen, made their conquest of little use, particularly as the Prussians burned the village, to drive out the remaining tirailleurs, who seem to have been so much dreaded.  This little advantage, gave, however, the Prussians more spirits, and they now began to have some hopes of farther success; but these flattering hopes were not of long continuance; for, as the weather began to clear up, they saw a numerous enemy rushing from the neighbouring hills down into the forest of Isserstedt, and overwhelming every thing before them.  They attacked the Prince’s right wing, accompanied with a tremendous tirailleurs fire.  During this attack, another column of fresh French troops, under Ney, took again possession of the yet burning village of Fierzehnheiligen, and did great execution against whatever opposed them.  Immediately after came Soult with his troops, and attacked the Prince on the left; whilst Augereau, likewise just arrived, took the right wing, and pushed forward with such a terrible fire, that nearly the whole of some regiments fell a sacrifice to the fury of the assailants.

In this dreadful moment of such savage slaughter, the whole line of the Prussian infantry began to retreat in the greatest confusion; and, though a few brave fellows, assembled around their standard, attempted to resist, yet they could not hold out against such a superior and impetuous force, but quitted the field in what order they could.

At this period of dismay, General Rüchel arrived with the reinforcement the Prince had requested early in the day, and, as the left wing was yet engaged, he made up to that point; but, whilst advancing, a musket-ball struck him; he immediately fell, and was carried to an adjacent village.  The French, who had always troops in readiness, now attacked this fresh corps with superior force; and several regiments having soon lost a great part of their officers, began to give way; the rest following, a general flight ensued:  so that the momentary appearance of this reinforcement availed nothing towards averting the fate of the day.  The Prince is acknowledged to have behaved with great gallantry on this perilous occasion, and he repeatedly attempted to rally and encourage his troops, but in vain; he was therefore obliged to leave the field with the scattered remains of his army around him, and at length they reached the Weimar road, where it was agreed to make Liebstedt and Sachsenhausen their present places of rendezvous; and there also to await the Saxon troops, with respect to whose fate they were both uncertain and very anxious. 


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