Bernadotte 1806 – Is There a Case for the Defence?
By John Cook
If Marshal Bernadotte’s career is not one that attracts particular attention, in comparison with some of his peers, it is his performance in 1806 that attracts most adverse comment.
Bernadotte commanded I Corps, which immediately before the twin battles of Jena and Auerstädt on 14 October 1806 formed, together with Marshal Davout III Corps, the right wing of the Grand Army, the purpose of which was to fall on the left and rear of the main Prussian army, which Napoleon expected to fight somewhere in the vicinity of Weimar on or about 16 October.
To this end, on 12 October, following reports from Murat which indicated that the Prussian army was concentrating at Erfurt some 12 miles to the west of Weimar, Napoleon drafted a concept of operations for the concentration of the army, in which Davout and Bernadotte were to be at Apolda and Dornburg respectively on 14 October.
In any event Napoleon’s appreciation was wrong, both in the location of the main Prussian army but also in the context of the date on which he expected to fight it. In the circumstances this was not Napoleon’s fault; he could only act on the information he received. Furthermore, it may be doubted that he was ever entirely clear about enemy intentions, due largely to the bizarre movements of the Prussian army.
Be that as it may, as is well known, the Prussian army destroyed at Jena was not the main body he expected to find but a detachment of some 40,000 to 50,000 men under command of Hohenlohe. Indeed, even after the battle of Jena was over, Napoleon initially refused to believe that this was the case and when he received news of Davout’s remarkable victory at Auerstädt from Colonel Falcon, Davout’s aide-de-camp, he responded with “Your marshal must have been seeing double.” Auerstädt was never to feature as a Napoleonic battle honour.
This article, however, is not concerned with either Jena or Auerstädt, but the series of events that resulted in Bernadotte’s I Corps, amongst others, taking no part in either. It does not seek to exonerate Bernadotte from all criticism but attempts to explain why he acted in the way that he did.
The Prosecution’s Case
It is usually suggested that Bernadotte’s actions were deliberate but it has never been determined whether this was the case or not. If it was the former then, of course, it was indefensible, but I see no motive for it, either for Bernadotte personally or in general terms. The basis for the charge, inferred or repeated as received wisdom, by observers writing in the latter part of the 20th Century is based on a number of things.
The first, and to which most weight is usually given, is Napoleon’s critique written immediately after the battles; added to this is his writing on the subject at Saint Helena. Further prejudice is generated against Bernadotte for his having taken up the offer of the Swedish throne and, in particular, for participating in the campaign of 1813 against his former master and country. Where is it written that an individual may not openly change nationality and allegiance? The matter of Bernadotte’s ‘immigration’, however, is not germane to his actions in 1806. As part of the general equation, it must also be admitted that Napoleon and Bernadotte did not like each other at all.
Bernadotte is, at best, seen as the ‘Grouchy’ of 1806 and, similarly, with considerable hindsight. At worst he is seen as a coward and a traitor for having disobeyed a direct order and not having marched to the sound of Davout’s guns. It is also often claimed that a personality clash between Davout and Bernadotte was at least in part responsible for the latter’s actions on 13th/14th October, and that as a result Bernadotte deliberately abandoned Davout. There is no evidence to support this. Material in this vein is produced by Petre and Elting, to the effect that he refused Suhac, commanding a Division of dragoons, permission to retrace his steps and go to Davout’s aid. This may be true (the evidence is suspect, as will be explained later), but under the circumstances, soon to be examined, such a decision would have been the correct one. Auerstädt was not the vicinity of the anticipated decisive battle and it is impossible to emphasise this point too much.
The Defence’s Evidence
The orders received by Davout and Bernadotte during the hours prior to Jena were designed to close the trap on the Prussian main army, which Napoleon expected to find in the vicinity of Weimar. In the absence of critical elements of information about enemy locations, movements and intentions, Davout, Bernadotte and, indeed, Napoleon would have needed second sight to have predicted Auerstädt.
What orders, then, did Bernadotte and the other relevant personalities receive?
12 October 1806
All the information Napoleon received during 11 October, from Soult, Lannes and Murat, indicated that the enemy was concentrating at Erfurt, some 16 kilometres west of Weimar. He determined to surround the enemy if it remained there by manoeuvering against its left, which would also cut it off from Berlin and Dresden if it retreated. As usual, Napoleon’s planning took at least two options into account.
At Auma, sometime between 0300 and 0400 on the morning of 12 October 1806, he worked out a concept of operations in rough note form. These were not orders as such and were not disseminated. Map
“Guard 10th in the evening at Bamberg, 11th at Lichtenfels, 12th Beyond Kronach, 13th at Lobentstein;
From Hautpoul, the 11th to two leagues [a league is approximately 5 kilometres] beyond Kronach, 14th at Auma, 15th at Jena;
Klein, the 11th to two leagues from Kronach, the 15th at Jena, the 14th at Jena, the 13th at Auma;
Klein, the 12th at Lobenstein;
Jena to Weimar 4 leagues, reserve cavalry (Murat), the 14th at Jena;
Naumburg to Weimar, 7 leagues, Guard, the 15th at Jena;
Kahla to Weimar, 5 leagues, park, the 15th at Auma;
Neustadt to Jena, 5 leagues, Davout, the 14th at Apolda;
Gera to Jena, 7 leagues, Lannes, the 15th at Weimar;
From Zeitz to Jena, 7 leagues, Augereau, the 14th at Mellingen;
Bernadotte, the 14th at Dornburg;
Soult, the 14th at Jena;
Ney, the 14th at Kahla.
Note throughout: The author’s emboldening and (parenthesis).
Napoleon then dictated his operation order to Berthier. It was short and to the point.
“Give orders to Marshal Davout to leave his position for Naumburg, where he must arrive as quickly as possible, but always holding his troops ready to fight. He will be preceded by all his light cavalry, which will send out skirmishers as far as possible, as much for the purpose of obtaining news of the enemy as to make prisoners, stop baggage, and get accurate information.’
‘General Suhac’s division of dragoons will be under his orders. It will proceed to Mittel-Pöllnitz, where it will receive Marshal Davout’s orders. Prince Murat and Marshal Bernadotte are also ordered to Naumburg, but are to follow the Zeitz road.’
Marshal Lannes proceeds from Neustadt to Jena. Marshal Augereau to Kahla. Marshal Ney will be at Mittel-Pöllnitz. Headquarters will be at Gera, noon.’
‘Give orders for the sending off of the Divisions of heavy cavalry and the Divisions of dragoons which have remained in the rear, as well as the park of artillery, to Gera.”
There are two significant things absent from these orders. No details are given about the concept of operations, merely instructions to move from one place to another, and there is no information about the enemy.
Thus, none of the individuals concerned were to know the purpose of their orders and were not briefed about the locations, movement or intentions of the enemy. More serious omissions were to occur when Berthier, rather than repeat this order to each individual verbatim, extracted the parts which concerned them, thus, in addition to being ignorant of Napoleon’s operational plan and whereabouts of the enemy, they were similarly uninformed in the context of each others movements.
For example, at Auma timed 0400 on 12th October, based on Napoleon’s operation order, Berthier sent an order to Murat to proceed to Zeitz and thence to Naumburg, where he is told he will find Davout. He is told to “send out skirmishers in the direction of Leipzig”, and the location the Imperial headquarters and most other formations, with one notable and, as will soon be seen, important exception; he is told nothing about Bernadotte’s I Corps.
The inclusion of the instruction to send out skirmishers is interesting for it does not feature in the operation order. It was probably a verbal instruction from Napoleon.
Also from Auma at 0400, Berthier sent an order to Bernadotte telling him that Murat was moving to Naumburg via Zeitz, and that he is to support Murat’s movements and arrange details of his march with Murat. Bernadotte is told of the transfer of the Imperial headquarters to Gera, but given no information whatever about the locations of other formations. He is not told that Davout is also ordered to Naumburg.
Finally, at 0500, Berthier writes Davout’s order. It tells him to move to Naumburg, but not by which route, but at least informs him that Murat and Bernadotte are also moving there via Zeitz.
In a parallel private despatch to Murat, written by Napoleon personally, also from Auma at 0400, Murat is still not told of Bernadotte’s orders to co-operate with him and, furthermore, it orders him to cover the “whole plain of Leipzig” with his cavalry.
This tends to support the possibility that the issue of reconnaissance towards Leipzig by the cavalry was an after-thought. Did Napoleon not know that Berthier had included it in Murat’s orders? When it comes to such detail the left hand does not seem to know what the right hand is doing.
Anyway, this causes Murat to reply from Zeitz that he has conflicting orders; Berthier’s telling him to send out skirmishers towards Leipzig and Napoleon’s telling him to send his entire cavalry. He asks for confirmation, therefore, if he is still to move towards Naumburg, which is in the opposite direction from Leipzig, and draws up a half-cocked plan to accomplish all the contradictory tasks he has been given!
So, Murat’s confusion notwithstanding, he remains unaware of the support he is to receive from Bernadotte, Bernadotte is left ignorant of the general movement of the army and can only learn that Davout is also moving to Naumburg from Murat. None of them are told anything about the enemy or Napoleon plans for bringing the Prussians to battle.
Furthermore, in Napoleon’s original instructions to Berthier he mentioned Davout first, and most importantly. Berthier is to tell Davout he is to arrive at Naumburg “as quickly as possible”, whilst the others, later in the text, “are to follow the Zeitz road”. Davout is clearly vital to the success of the encircling movement and has approximately a further 12km to march, yet Berthier prepares and despatches Davout’s order last of all.
Berthier’s system of making a number of individual orders from the single order given him by Napoleon resulted in a number of important and serious omissions. So much for the efficiency of the Imperial general staff and its consummate Chief of Staff.
Napoleon then follows all this up with another personal despatch, this time to Davout at 0830, apparently as an after-thought, asking him by which road he intends to move to Naumburg.
This downward transmission of orders, with inconsistent or no lateral transmission, is appallingly bad staff work on the part of Berthier, which although it collectively reflects the instructions given to him by Napoleon, does not advise each Corps commander of the others’ orders and leaves Bernadotte particularly uninformed. These people, remember, are Corps commanders, the largest independent formations in the army, who are supposed to be able to act in concert with each other. It is almost beyond belief. The felony is compounded by Napoleon’s habit of sending additional private despatches to certain individuals, which tended, at times, only to confuse.
Davout received his order at 0600 and his vanguard set out a half hour later, followed ultimately by Gudin’s Division at 0930. This, incidentally, serves to show just how difficult it was to get an entire Corps moving; three and a half hours in this case. Murat and Bernadotte received their orders at 0715 and, in contrast, were not on the move at all until 0900. At 0700 Murat was sent a further order from Gera telling him to “give the troops a little rest” on 13 October. Evidently, even at this late stage, a battle was still not considered imminent.
13 October 1806
In the meantime scouts were sent out from Imperial headquarters. These produced new information which indicated that the enemy was, at last, moving. At 0900 on 13 October Napoleon penned a personal despatch to Murat based on the intelligence derived he from this information.
“At last the veil is drawn aside, the enemy having begun its retreat to Magdeburg. Move as quickly as possible with Bernadotte’s Corps in the direction of Dornburg.”. “I believe that the enemy will try to attack Marshal Lannes at Jena, or that they will flee. If they attack marshal Lannes, your position will enable you to assist him.”
Unfortunately Murat, in accordance with the earlier contradictory orders of 12 October, discussed above, had sent a large part of his cavalry to reconnoitre the plain of Leipzig, with the result that neither Beaumont’s dragoon Division, the Brigade of Lasalle, nor that of Milhaud would be available on 14 October 1806.
This situation was a direct result of contradictory orders being sent by two people; the chief of staff, in the name of Napoleon, and Napoleon himself in a private despatch. It was a classic case of order, counter-order, disorder.
Davout, Bernadotte and Murat were thus at Naumburg on the night of 13 October. It was at here that orders written by Berthier at 1500 arrived for Bernadotte and Davout. They were identical.
“The Emperor, Monsieur le Maréchal, learns, one league from Jena, that the enemy is face to face with Marshal Lannes with nearly 50,000 men. The Marshal even believes that he will be attacked this evening. If, this evening, you hear an attack at Jena you must manoeuvre on the enemy and outflank its left. If there is no attack this evening at Jena you will receive tonight the dispositions for tomorrow.”
Bernadotte, however, was already en route for Dornburg, presumably in accordance with the 0900 order received earlier by Murat, with whom he was co-operating. Indeed, Prussian reconnaissance reported, with some astonishment, the presence of French troops in Dornburg during the late morning of 13 October. Bernadotte halted his corps for the night, which was by now strung out all along the road between Dornburg and Naumburg, with its head probably in the vicinity of Kamburg and, perhaps, its advance guard in Dornburg, and awaited the promised orders.
14 October 1806
Subsequently, at 0300 on 14 October, Davout received further orders from Jena written at 2200 the previous evening, instructing him to march on Apolda.
“The Emperor has recognised a Prussian Army which stretches a league away before and on the heights of Jena as far as Weimar. He proposes to attack it on the morrow. He orders Marshal Davout to proceed to Apolda in order to fall on the rear of that army. He leaves the Marshal the choice of his route, provided he takes part in the fight.”
Berthier added this post script,
“If Marshal Bernadotte is with you, you can march together, but the Emperor hopes that he will be in the position which he pointed out to him at Dornburg.”
The fact is that Bernadotte, or at least his Corps, was not with Davout; I and III Corps were on opposite sides of Naumburg, I Corps strung out between Naumburg and Dornburg, with only its rear still in Naumburg. Furthermore, he had received no personal orders to countermand the last ones, which instructed him to march on Dornburg. Ignoring the commander of I Corps in this way is another example of just how bad staff work at Imperial headquarters was.
Could it have been a deliberate slight? I doubt it, and think it more likely to be Berthier’s incompetence at worst, lack of imagination at best. If it was important that Bernadotte marched with Davout, proper and unequivocal orders should have been sent to the former personally, not an ambiguous and vague suggestion by proxy.
On the strength of the post-script to his orders, Davout met with Bernadotte near Naumburg and, it is said, handed him a copy of the order. Davout determined to march west and approach Apolda from the north, rather than via Dornburg. Why, one wonders, did he choose this route? The answer is probably because Bernadotte already occupied the Naumburg/Dornburg/Apolda road with I Corps. A Corps took up a considerable distance on the march laterally and lengthways, not counting straggling for which the French army was notorious; the artillery and vehicles normally used the road, whilst others arms marched parallel to it. Anyway both routes were main roads, such as they were in 1806, and in the context of distance, and therefore time, were ‘six of one and half a dozen of the other’.
Bernadotte probably chose not to march with Davout for much the same reasons, and to avoid having to defile through Naumburg again.
Those then are the facts and circumstances of the orders received. No further orders were sent to either Davout or Bernadotte until 0500 on 15 October 1806.
The Defence’s Case
Napoleon’s Criticism Questioned.
Petre in Napoleon’s Conquest of Prussia bases his critique of Bernadotte primarily on that of Napoleon, written on 23 October, in which he accuses Bernadotte of disobeying an order to march with Davout and turning back on Dornburg.
“According to a very precise order you should have been at Dornburg, which is one of the principal passages of the Saale, on the same day as Marshal Lannes was at Jena, Marshal Augereau at Kahla, and Marshal Davout at Naumburg. In case you had not executed these orders, I had informed you during the night that, if you were still at Naumburg, you should march with Marshal Davout and support him. You were at Naumburg when this order arrived; it was communicated to you; but nevertheless you preferred to make a false march in order to turn back on Dornburg, and in consequence you did not find yourself in the battle, and Marshal Davout bore the principal efforts of the enemy’s army.”
This document is a classic example of wisdom after the event. Furthermore, there were no orders to Bernadotte to be at Dornburg on the same day as Lannes was at Jena; Lannes is not mentioned in any of Bernadotte’s orders. Lannes was already at Jena on 13 October, and had made contact with Prussian forces there. Bernadotte was not directed to Dornburg until 0900 on 13 October, through orders sent to Murat. Indeed, Napoleon himself, in his written concept of operations, did not anticipate that Bernadotte would be at Dornburg until 14 October and prior to the despatch of the 0900 orders to Murat, the time of receipt of which by Bernadotte is unclear, Bernadotte was expected to be at Naumburg on the same day as Davout. It is also worth mentioning that his 0900 orders not withstanding, Murat was also at Naumburg on 13 October. Either Napoleon’s famous memory failed him, or he was being deliberately selective and altering the facts to suit his case against Bernadotte.
Bernadotte, as we have seen, received no orders during the night at Naumburg. Davout did, in which there was a post script from Berthier saying that if Bernadotte he was at Naumburg he could march with Davout. Precisely what Napoleon did or did not say to Berthier is not left to us, but an order, in any language states “you are to” or something similar. “You can march together”, is too ambiguous for orders and is not an unequivocal instruction.
It is, however, fairly typical of the kind of vague order that was generated by the staff at Imperial headquarters. Such orders allowed the recipient to choose one course or another. If he chose the right one, they congratulated themselves, and the recipient, on their collective judgement. If he chose the wrong one, the order was used as evidence to show that he had disobeyed it.
Bernadotte made no march back to Dornburg, as Napoleon claimed, he was proceeding to that place in accordance with his orders, which were actually confirmed by the orders to Davout. They were take effect if Bernadotte was at Naumburg. I Corps was not at Naumburg; it was approaching Dornburg.
When the 2200 orders were received by Davout and transmitted to Bernadotte, most of I Corps was already through Naumburg, albeit halted by the roadside. Furthermore, in those orders, the express wish of Napoleon was still that Bernadotte should be at Dornburg.
Not only did Bernadotte not disobey Napoleon’s order, he did not turn back on Dornburg either. I Corps was already marching in that direction.
As for the final sentences about Davout being left to bear the brunt of the enemy’s efforts, that is pure hindsight. Napoleon had no idea, whatever, that Davout would encounter the enemy main body when he ordered him to Apolda, and anything he said in that context immediately afterwards, and later, is nothing more than wisdom after the event.
If Napoleon had complained that Bernadotte did not arrive in time to take part in the Battle of Jena, that would have been another matter. It would have, however, required Napoleon to concede that he had mistaken the ground, and the date, on which he expected to fight the battle.
I think it important to recognise that Napoleon was an arch disseminator of deliberate misinformation, not only in his version of events on St Helena, but on ‘the march’ as well. His criticism of Bernadotte’s Corps at Wagram in 1809 is another example.
Bernadotte clearly did not interpret ‘can’ as a direct order and refused to alter the direction of march of his Corps on Dornburg which was evidently, from Davout’s latest orders, still the place where Napoleon hoped Bernadotte would be if at all possible.
Furthermore, had he turned his Corps round and followed Davout, depending on when he spoke to Davout, it would have taken at least 3 hours, say 0600 at the very earliest, which is optimistic, before the tail somewhere between Naumburg and Dornburg was on the move, thus it can be doubted whether he would have arrived at Auerstädt in time to make any difference, one way or the other (even if he had a crystal ball). Furthermore, he was already much closer to Dornburg, where he had unambiguous orders telling him to be. Even had he received orders to move to Apolda, which he did not, unless they told him to march specifically via Timbuktu, or wherever, he would still have been correct to move via the road that he was already on, and committed to, which was not occupied by another Corps and was the most direct route.
Petre’s comment that Bernadotte marched by a circuitous route to Apolda via Dornburg, the inference of which is that this was deliberate, is nonsense. It was the direct and shortest route. Indeed, he had almost reached Dornburg on the night of 13/14 October 1806, perhaps even with elements of his advance guard in it, in accordance with all the orders he had received up to that time.
The Sound of the Guns
We come now to the criticism that Bernadotte should have marched to the sound of Davout’s guns.
Should he have not marched to the sounds of Napoleon’s guns?
If he heard Davout’s he surely must have heard those at Jena which was, after all, where he knew the main body of the French army was, and on which vicinity all orders, not only Bernadotte’s, were intended to concentrate Napoleon’s forces. Even if he did hear Davout’s guns, Bernadotte had no business marching to them.
As Maude points out, “Napoleon aimed only at an economy of force, i.e. of human life, essentially on the whole transaction, and provided that he was successful in this, the fate of a detachment troubled him not at all.”
We know that the head of Davout’s column was on the march by 0600 on 14th October, at approximately the same time as Tauenzien’s cannon were opening fire in the fog at Jena, and the Prussian main army commenced its march along the road towards Kösen. At approximately 0700 the leading elements of Davout’s III Corps blundered into this army near Hassenhausen, in the same fog, and the classic encounter battle of Auerstädt began.
If Bernadotte is supposed to have heard Davout’s guns at Auerstädt from Dornburg, is it not equally possible that Davout heard Napoleon’s guns at Jena from Naumburg, as he began his march to Apolda. It is certainly possible. However, if he did, and bearing in mind that the prosecution maintains that Bernadotte should have marched to the sound of Davout’s guns, should not Davout be equally criticised by Napoleon’s latter-day armchair generals, if not more so, for not marching to the sound of Tauenzien’s cannon at Jena, if they were audible at Naumburg at 0600 on 14 October?
In fact, if he was to be criticised for that supposed omission, we should come to his defence on the same basis as we ought to Bernadotte’s. The route Davout chose for III Corps was undoubtedly the quickest and most direct to the decisive point, as was Bernadotte’s for I Corps.
Maude also points out, in an interesting aside on the audibility of artillery fire, that in some conditions guns can be heard at 60 miles, in others they are inaudible at two miles, even though discharges may be observed. The conductivity of sound in air is, apparently, dependent on the uniformity of the tension of aqueous vapour between two points. If this is broken by cloud shadow or water, for example, between the two points the sound is arrested.
Furthermore, Chandler, in his Jena 1806 (in which, incidentally, he is far less scathing about Bernadotte than in his Campaigns of Napoleon) also suggests that the topography of the Saale may have masked the sounds of firing from Auerstädt, whilst amplifying those at Jena. Could the fog on the morning of 14 October, as well as terrain, have been as issue in this context?
Whether he heard Davout’s guns or not, which I am happy to concede that he may well have done, the suggestion that he should have marched towards the sound is nonsense. Not only was it not in the direction in which the principal battle was expected, but if he heard Davout’s he must also have heard Napoleon’s. Furthermore, such an absurdity can only be suggested without even cursory reference to the ground between Dornburg and Auerstädt.
Colonel Elting says that Bernadotte had stern words with Suhac and refused to allow him to retrace his steps with his Division of dragoons and march to Davout’s guns, presumably via Naumburg. Suhac had been earlier chopped from Murat’s command to Davout’s, but was now back under Murat’s orders and was also marching towards Dornburg with I Corps and the Reserve Cavalry. As a Division commander he would have been even less well informed than a mere marshal and had even less qualification to question Napoleonic infallibility.
Petre says much the same thing, but unlike Elting he does identify the source of the alleged conversation as the memoirs of General of Division Savary, the Duke of Rovigo. Savary was at Jena with Napoleon for the entire day and could not possibly know, first hand, of any conversation Bernadotte had with Suhac on the matter.
Furthermore, even Elting’s appreciation of Savary is that of a man so devoted to Napoleon “that he willingly did the Empire’s dirty work.” Was Savary doing some ‘dirty work’ here. It really doesn’t matter for Bernadotte, even if the story is true, was right to prevent Suhac marching to Davout, for all the reasons already given. Jena was the important battle, not Auerstädt.
If we presume that he could hear firing from both Jena and Auerstädt, what was Bernadotte to do? Bearing in mind that he was not informed as to the intricacies of Napoleon’s plan, and probably could only surmise the precise reason for his presence at Dornburg, does he disobey his orders and march away from where he must have known Napoleon expected to fight a battle against the Prussian main army, without really knowing what was happening to Davout to his north, or perhaps even exactly where he was ?
I don’t think so.
Consider now the communications. To march towards Davout he would have to either retrace his steps and follow the route Davout took, via Naumburg, which was just too far, or march via Apolda.
To march to Napoleon at Jena, the battle actually taking place some 3 miles north west of Jena, he could have gone back to Dornburg and followed the west bank of the Saale to Jena, and thence to the battlefield, which would have served no useful purpose at all, or continued west to Apolda and thence south to Hermstädt and into Hohenlohe’s rear.
Whether he chose to support Davout or Napoleon, the only possible practical route was via Apolda. There was high ground and river systems to his north and more high ground to his south. A direct march across country and small tracks towards either, even if he abandoned his guns and vehicles, was simply not a practical proposition. The going precluded it.
Furthermore, it is impossible to avoid the fact that he had no orders to support Davout. I and III Corps were part of the encircling movement in the Prussian rear. Bernadotte, Davout, and Napoleon, would have needed second sight to predict Auerstädt. Indeed, Napoleon’s appreciation of where the Prussian main body was, was just about as wrong as it could be.
Having arrived at Dornburg, presuming that he could hear Davout’s guns, Bernadotte was too far away to have reached Auerstädt to be useful, even if he was able to identify that place as the source of the firing. A quick look at the map shows that he was better placed to intervene at Jena, in which context it is important to note that Bernadotte did not possess reliable maps and even Napoleon worked from cartography of Saxony produced in 1763.
Bernadotte’s Alleged Slothfulness
Bernadotte concentrated his I Corps at Dornburg, in accordance with his orders, where the last of it arrived at approximately 1000 on 14 October. It is said that he did not march with much urgency, but his Corps was spread out over some distance, had been marching all day, in fog that did not lift until 1030, and had to defile across the Saale at Dornburg. Morand’s Division of III Corps, it should be noted, did not arrive at Auerstädt until 1000 having covered roughly the same distance over similar roads. By 1100 Bernadotte was on the west bank of the Saale; he does not appear to have marched at a pace significantly different from Davout’s formations.
Here we have a Corps commander who has specific orders to be “in the position indicated to him at Dornburg.” He had obeyed these to the letter but which “position”, we may ask, as Bernadotte may have done. This was not made clear and it is suggested, by Maude, that Bernadotte may even have been anticipating further explanatory orders.
There is also another suggested explanation for his alleged slow progress from Naumburg to Dornburg. Chandler offers the possibility that in the darkness and fog on the night of 13/14 October, Bernadotte’s Corps mistook Kamburg for Dornburg. If correct, it is also possible that elements may even have crossed the Saale at Kamburg, roughly equidistant between Naumburg and Dornburg. This was a ‘dead end’ to all intents and purposes and would have cause delay and confusion. This, it must be admitted, is no more than speculation.
Having reached Dornburg, in the absence of new orders but presumably aware of a battle in progress to his south, and probably another to his north, he decided to move to Apolda, covering the approximately 13km between the two in what can only be admitted was a very slow six hours. The generous might conclude that he wanted to remain close to Dornburg, where he was supposed to be, whilst trying to make contact with I Corps, where he knew Napoleon expected Davout to be. The ungenerous put another slant on it. Cowardice and treason.
However, by opting to continue in the direction of Dornburg, rather than following Davout’s Corps, he appears to have had a good grasp of Napoleon’s concept of operations, even though he had not been briefed, for by the time he reached Dornburg complete with his Corps, he was in the rear of what Napoleon thought was the main Prussian army at Jena.
The effect of the orders received by these two marshals, had events not intervened, would have placed their Corps at Apolda and Dornburg respectively on 14 October, in the left and rear of what Napoleon believed to be the main Prussian army, now to his front at Jena, ready either to block its retreat or fall on its rear. In his concept of operations Napoleon calculated that I Corps and III Corps would be in position on that date. He really did not have much to complain about.
What Napoleon did not know, and neither did anybody else at the time, was that the Prussian main body was actually much further north. It was this which Davout encountered at Auerstädt, by accident rather than design.
It is only possible to conclude that Bernadotte took the right decision to continue to march on Dornburg, in the direction of what Napoleon thought was to be the decisive battle against the enemy main body.
Ultimately, between Dornburg and Apolda, he moved slowly, that is undoubtedly true, and the reason for this has never been satisfactorily explained. He can be criticised for that but bearing in mind the ‘order, counter-order, disorder’ environment, and indeed the absence of up to date orders, in which he was operating, perhaps it is not too surprising. Ultimately, he placed his Corps where Napoleon wanted it to be, at between 1000 and 1100 on 14 October 1806.
It is worth noting that Foucart in Campagne de Prusse – Jena 1806 estimated that, combined with the drift of the battle towards Weimar, the earliest that the leading Division of I Corps could have arrived on the field was approximately 1230, followed by the second Division at approximately 1600. The battle was effectively over at 1300 when Hohenlohe ordered the retreat. Rüchel’s futile demonstration being dealt with by 1430, which quickly turned into a rout and pursuit. Foucart further estimated that the remainder of I Corps, together with Grouchy’s and Suhac’s dragoon Divisions would never have arrived in time to be of any use.
In the event the leading elements of Bernadotte’s Corps did not arrive in Apolda until 1630; some I Corps formations, however, had been marching all day, possibly taken a wrong turn, defiled across a river and were exhausted.
Elting’s observation, in his Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars, that Bernadotte’s “near treasonous behaviour” compromised Napoleon’s operational plan and “upset his calculations” is absurd. Napoleon’s calculations were flawed from the outset when he made the mistake of believing that the entire Prussian army was concentrated at Erfurt. If Foucart is correct Bernadotte was never in a position to influence the outcome of the battle.
Bernadotte, executed the letter and intent of his orders, such as they were, in precise accordance with Napoleon’s concept of operations, written in note form at Auma on 12 October.
The only thing Bernadotte can really be criticised for is not marching with more vigour to Apolda. When he arrived at Dornburg, his appointed place, in the absence of orders or sure knowledge of Napoleon’s intentions, his apparent caution is, perhaps, understandable. Had the main Prussian army been where Napoleon thought it was, and the battle fought on 16 October, as Napoleon expected, Davout’s and Bernadotte’s Corps would have completed the manoeuvre Napoleon intended, and the entire Grand Army would have been concentrated on the anticipated battlefield.
There is nothing particularly distinguished about Bernadotte’s career as a Marshal, but there is no evidence that he deliberately set out to sabotage Napoleon’s plans in 1806. If Bernadotte is to be criticised for his lack of urgency in his movement from Dornburg to Apolda, Napoleon needs to be criticised for a flawed assessment of enemy locations and intent, issuing ambiguous and contradictory orders, and Berthier needs to be equally censored for indifferent staff work.
Could Bernadotte have done better? Perhaps, but there are questions to which there are no answers at this distance, the most intriguing of which is the possibility of mistaking Kamburg for Dornburg on the night of 13 October, in which case he may have thought he was where he was supposed to be. Furthermore, if he did cross the Saale at Kamburg it would account for a loss of time. It’s a tempting explanation but is, it seems, no more than speculation. In any event, as we have seen, no significant time was lost between Naumburg and Dornburg and Bernadotte covered much the same distance over similar ground, in roughly the same time that Davout did on his march west. In other words, both Corps were complete at Dornburg and Auerstädt respectively, at roughly the same time.
The place where Bernadotte really did loose time was between Dornburg and Apolda, by which time the sounds of battle at Jena would have virtually ceased. The explanations for his slowness here can only be guessed at.
Napoleon, it is said, drew up papers for Bernadotte’s court martial but then withdrew them because he felt it would be tantamount to having him shot. I suspect that on reflection he realised there was no real case to answer, and that a court martial would embarrass Napoleon as much as it might Bernadotte.
For further articles on the battles of Jena and Auerstadt see:
Chandler, D.G. Jena 1806 Osprey Publishing Ltd. London, 1993.
Esposito, Vincent J. and John R. Elting. A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars Faber and Faber : London; 1964.
Foucart. Campagne de Prusse 1806 Paris, 1890 (quoted at length in Petre and Maude).
Lees, F. G. Napoleon at Work Originally published 1914 (reprint PDI Publishing and Athena Books, Doncaster, 1995) Translation of Colonel Vachée’s – Napoleon en Campagne en Campagne.
Maude, F.N. 1806: The Jena Campaign Macmillan; 1909.
Petre, F.L. Napoleon’s Conquest of Prussia – 1806 Originally published 1907. (reprint Arms and Armour Press, London, 1972).