A Cursory View of Prussia from the Death of Frederick II to the Peace of Tilsit
LETTER XXX: The Battle of Friedland
WE left the two contending armies retired to their quarters, both desirous to suspend hostilities, with the view to repose their troops, and await the expected supplies of fresh forces. The French, in a few days, changed their position; and Bonapartè’s head-quarters were fixed at Osterode. The Russians made also another movement, and entrenched themselves in and about Heilsberg. Bennigsen’s head-quarters were at Bartenstein. Bonapartè was soon reinforced by Bavarian and other troops from Silesia, under the command of General Massena; but the Russian supplies were not yet arrived. Bonapartè would apparently have immediately taken the advantage of this siuation, had he not been desirous to be first assured of the fate of Dantzig. To approach the nearer to the objects he had in view, he removed his head-quarters to Finkenstein, and was there soon informed of the capitulation of Dantzig.
His farther plan began now to ripen.
In the mean time, Bennigsen, anxious for his expected reinforcements, seems to have formed the same plan as at Pultusk, which was to retreat in hop of meeting them. He accordingly left Heilsberg, and proceeded along the banks of the Aller, giving Lestock, whom he had stationed near Haff, intelligence of his motions. Immediately on Bennigsen’s departure, Bonapartè took possession of Heilsberg, and resolved, not only to pursue the Russians, and cut them off from Königsberg, but also to prevent Lestock from joining them.
This able commander, however, foreseeing Bonapartè’s plan, had, on being informed of Bennigsen’s retreat, forthwith retired to Königsberg.
Bonapartè, in pursuance of his plan, dispatched Murat, Davoust, and Soult, by Krutzberg direct to Königsberg; Ney, Mortier, and Lannes, by Damnau to Friedland; whither he himself soon followed, with Victor and the guards.
The Russians, who from Heilsberg had kept the right bank of the Aller, towards Friedland, on being thus pursued, halted there to oppose the passage of the enemy over that river. On the 13th of June the French took possession of Friedland, and all the left bank of the Aller, but the same day, they were dislodged by the Russians, who drove them back to the village of Posthenen. Here was it that Bonapartè guided the reins of victory; for, in the warmth of imaginary conquest, Bennigsen had passed to the left side of the Aller, and omitted to order his whole force to follow; by which unfortunate neglect there were ten regiments of infantry and a large division of cavalry left unemployed on the right bank of the river, during the whole subsequent action. The Russians had advanced with that part of their army which was on the left bank, and formed themselves so as to keep Friedland open to their rear. The French rested their left wing on Heinrichsdorff, their right on Sophiendahl, and the centre, with Bonapartè at their head, was posted before Posthenen. The battle began by break of day, and, notwithstanding the inferiority of numbers on the part of the Russians, was maintained till dark with great coolness and intrepidity. At length, Bonapartè, by contracting the circle of his greater force, pushed them so powerfully, that the whole body gave way in three different places. The centre retired through Friedland, where they burned the bridge, and both the wings crossed the Aller at different places. They then formed the right side, and continued their retreat towards Wehlau in perfect order; notwithstanding Bonapartè soon threw a temporary bridge over the Aller to pursue them.
We here again, as almost on all former occasion, see Bonapartè’s success arise from the inattentions of his opponents. Had Bennigsen on the 13th, when he had driven the French back upon Posthenen, ordered the troops standing idle on the left side to have crossed the Aller a little above Heinrichsdorff, when the French had not yet recovered from their retreat, and then fallen on their rear, with Bennigsen to pursue the advantages he had already gained in front, the French probably would have been driven to their old quarters on the Passarge, and the large detachment sent to Königsberg would have been then completely cut off, and that city rescued. But Bonapartè has repeatedly shown how well he knows his adversaries; for, as Bennigsen’s position on the left side was, on account of the steepness of the banks of the Aller, infinitely better calculated to oppose any attack, we might almost be led to suspect, that Bonapartè had feigned a retreat, to entire Bennigsen to pursue him on his own ground, where he was sure to out manœuvre him.
The French troops which Bonapartè had sent to Königsberg had already made one attack upon that place, and were preparing for a second, when the news arrived of the loss of the battle of Friedland. The surrender of Königsberg was the natural consequence. Murat and Soult marched immediately through in pursuit of the retreating Russians.—In the mean time, the King, then yet at Memel, received intelligence of their defeat, and of the surrender of Königsberg. As if his last hope was here gone, the afflicted monarch was, for some moments, struck dumb with agony; and never has he been observed to express such very strong symptoms of grief and disappointment. On his return from an airing with his Queen, the courier was waiting at the door. He hastily tore the dispatches open, and was so lost in the excess of his feelings, that he walked up and down in the street, striking his forehead in silent dispair. His illustrious consort sympathized with his anguish, yet, at the moment, more collected, gently withdrew him from the sorrowful gaze of the weeping crowd which had gathered around him
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