A Cursory View of Prussia from the Death of Frederick II to the Peace of Tilsit
LETTER XXVII: The Battle of Eylau
AS the King of Prussia had refused the armistice offered him by Bonapartè, and thrown himself entirely under the protection of Alexander, the French went immediately in quest of the Russians, who were then assembled between the Narew and the Bug, waiting for reinforcements. This Bonapartè was well informed of; for, having now the Polish Jews in his play, who are a most cunning and indefatigable people, he could completely put his beloved system of espionage into practice. He, therefore, quickly crossed the Vistula and the Bug. Near Pultusk they soon met. They fought, and, according to their separate accounts, they were both conquered. It seems, however, probable, that victory would ultimately have decidedly declared in favor of the Russians had Buxhovden done his duty; and, had not the commander in chief, Kaminskey, a decrepid hypochondriacal man, suddenly become so deranged in his mind, that a council of war was immediately called, at which all the general officers declared him made, set aside his authority, and sent him forthwith to St. Petersburg. This occasioned a sort of interregnum in the army, as Buxhövden was the older officer, but Bennigsen, the acting commander. This caused, even at such a critical moment, a disunion, and, of course, parties. Indeed they seem, as in such situations, is unfortunately too often the case, to have been somewhat jealous of each other’s fame. Bonapartè was aware of what was doing in the opposite army; but, in despite of all his endeavours to benefit from the occasion, the unusual thaw had so totally ruined the roads, that it was impossible to transport his artillery more than three or four miles a day. This unexpected intervention favored both parties. In the mean time, Buxhövden was ordered away to the army in Wallachia, and Bennigsen appointed to be commander in chief.
As Bennigsen would not risque another battle until the expected reinforcements under Tolstoy should have joined him, he retreated until they met. Thus strengthened, he then advanced towards the enemy, and pressed so closely upon the French, that they were frequently brought to very sharp encounters. During this trifling warfare, Bennigsen received intelligence, confirmed by intercepted dispatches, that Bonapartè had formed a determined plan to make himself master of Königsberg, as the supposed centre of the allies’ magazines; and to manœuvre their army from the sea coast into the marshy country about the river Aller. This induced Bennigsen immediately to take another route, and hasten to Königsberg, by which unexpected turn he had nearly taken Bernadotte’s division, which only by very forced marches escaped him.
Both armies at length arrived together in the neighbourhood of Prussian Eylau, and a general reconnoitring now began, and very active skirmishing took place between the outposts, previous to the important battle of the 8th. Bennigsen saw it approaching, and prepared himself accordingly. It dawned—and, on this memorable day, Bonapartè opened the scene by a fierce attack upon all points. By his manifold daring manœuvres, and the rapidity of their execution, which is the known great force of his armies, he quite exhausted his whole military genius. He was every where—he exerted every power to win the day. To all this activity and amazing ability, Bennigsen had only the bravery and the perseverance of his hardy troops to oppose; and he was fortunate enough to render all the endeavours and the artifices of his enemy ineffectual. The town of Eylau covered the front of the allies; yet, after a hard conflict, in which each party was twice foiled, the French at length became masters of it.
The allies fell back on their main body, which stood on an eminence behind the town. The fate of the day depended on keeping this ground.—Bonapartè now formed his whole infantry into one large column, which he himself led on to storm this important point. Bennigsen foresaw the attack, and had reserved his whole force to repel it.—He had ordered sixty pieces of heavy artillery to be planted together, and totally masked by a large body of cavalry.—The enemy approach with impetuous step; Bennigsen forbids a single musket to be fired. At length, having his enemy within a hundred yards he orders his cavalry to wheel off, and now began a most terrible grape and case-shot fire. The effect may easier be conceived than described; and what made it still more murderous was, that Bonapartè, according to his custom, kept continually pressing on the rear of this gigantic column. The head was, of course, forced to move forward, and therefore could not escape. As this, however, brought them nearer, the Russians were indulged with their favorite attack with the bayonet, and made a most dreadful slaughter. The right wing of the allies was not so fortunate; it was repulsed and flanked by a superior force, and a battery of artillery was ready to play upon it while a large body of cavalry was advancing upon it’s rear; which at this very critical moment, the Prussian general, Lestock, only just then arrived, observing, he rushed immediately in with this whole force, bravely put the French to flight, and the Russians then rallying, the Prussians joined them.
This was a most sad disappointment to Bonapartè, as he had already, in the night, sent off Ney and Davoust, with their corps, to flank the Russians on that wing, and cut off Lestock’s division, which he knew to be then on it’s march from Hussehnen; but this gallant commander, by his singular dispatch, both rescued this part of the Russian army, and showed what Prussian soldiers are when properly led on.
The evening now approaching, both armies paused: nor did either seem eager to renew the contest; though here, as at Pultusk, both claimed the victory. Indeed, so sanguine are the friends of the allies, that they maintain, that if the battle had been renewed the next day, the French must have been totally routed; but against this assertion, there are some remarks to be offered.
The allies had been driven from their first advantageous position, which the enemy now possessed, and consequently remained masters of the field. This position on the eminence must necessarily have been first regained.
The French, it is true, had lost infinitely more men than the Russians; but, by the last two day’s excess of fatigue, the Russian troops were so harassed, that they could not venture on such an attack; nor had they any fresh troops in reserve to undertake it; and, as Bennigsen is said to have begun to want ammunition, he seems on this occasion, to have acted wiser, by retiring towards Königsberg; and, though the enemy, some days after, made a show of pursuing him, yet they soon returned, and went into quarters on the Passarge, extending themselves from thence over Osterode and Willenberg as far as Ostrolenka. Bennigsen observing this gave his troops repose, for the present, in the neighbourhood of Königsberg; and thus both armies, for a while, suspended their hostilities.
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