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Lessons on 1807: Maneuvers of Eylau and Friedland

Lessons on 1807: Maneuvers of Eylau and Friedland

By: Pierre Grenier

Translated by: Greg Gorsuch

Translator’s Note: This small volume was writtensometime after the Franco-Prussian War and the Sino-Russian War but before World War I.  It is written in a fashion that I suspect it to be something like a doctoral thesis at a war college.  It deals mostly with the cavalry and Pierre Grenier was probably a cavalry officer.  It is broadly broken down into “the Oder to Eylau” and the “Eylau to Friedland”. 


Temporary Encampments.  — December 29.

Due to bad weather, the poor state of roads and lack of food, pursuit was impossible. Napoleon decided to make their winter quarters.

For four or five days, the Grand Army would move into temporary quarters at the locations indicated by the sketch below, to clear the areas and to see what the enemy would do.  Afterwards, it would settle into final quarters.

The cavalry of Murat remained in position between the Orzyc and Rozan and waited on the making of the temporary encampments and had to act in this way so that the enemy did not perceive the intent of Napoleon.

To this end, Treillard positioned two squadrons just up to Ostrolenka where “they will settle, if it is evacuated and then they will send all the information they have been able to obtain on the direction in which the Russian army departs.”  With the maintenance of contact and the information that would result from the cavalry, they ensured that the army quietly and safely proceeded to its installation in the cantonments.

Soult, would be established along the Orzyc with the mission of covering the army.  In four or five days, when the final quarters were taken, the cavalry would not have to do a job of exploring, but security; while employing the minimum necessary cavalry, which would be under the command of the corps of coverage, Soult. 

All the corps were ordered to no longer bivouac but immediately go into cantonments.

The three brigades of light cavalry who were on the Omulew were placed under the command of General Lannes; they were supported in the rear by two divisions of dragoons quartered at Rozan and Krasnosielsk.  The Nansouty division of cuirassiers was installed on the Orzyc in the cantonments of the infantry.

The next day, December 30, Napoleon gave orders to Davout to confine his cavalry to the left bank of the Narew from Pultusk, Ostrow and nearly to Ostrolenka.

That of Lannes was to be confined from Sierock along the Bug, to Brock.

Consider what steps the Emperor would take if the Russians attacked while his army was installed in its temporary quarters.

1st hypothesis.  -If the enemy moves through Ostrolenka to Makow, Soult’s corps, which is covered by the cavalry at 35 kilometers will have time to concentrate at Makow (25 kilometers from Przaszinc to Makow, 15 kilometers from Magnieszewo to Makow).  The 3rd and 7th Corps would arrive later at the same time as the enemy at Makow (35 kilometers from Makow to Nasielsk and Nowemiasto, the extreme points of the cantonments of the 3rd and 7th Corps).  The 5th Corps would immediately follow the 3rd Corps (40 kilometers from Nieporent to Makow).

While the army stood in front of the Russians, that of Bernadotte (1st Corps, 6th Corps of the army and 2nd Corps of cavalry) which were at Soldau, Mlava, Chorzellen and whose line of communication was through Thorn, would fall on the right flank of the Russians

If the enemy attack took place at Przasnic, the division there was to retreat to Makow and the army of right (4th, 3rd, 5th and 7th Corps) would assemble between Makow and Golymin; we use again the previous hypothesis.

2nd hypothesis.  -If the Russians took the offensive in the peninsula between the Bug and the Narew, the 5th and 3rd Corps, covered by their cavalry at55 kilometers, would concentrate at Sierock and Pultusk, the 7th and 4th Corps would have time to arrive at Pultusk before the enemy (30 kilometers from Pultusk to Nowemiasto, 40 kilometers from Przasznic to Pultusk).

Bernadotte’s army would also move on this point.

If the enemy moved on Pultusk, Napoleon would call on a part of the 5th Corps (20 kilometers from Pultusk to Sierock).  If the Russians were moving on Sierock, the 5th Corps, would reinforce if necessary the 7th Corps, holding their head, and the rest of the Grand Army would debouche at Pultusk to take the enemy in flank.

3rd hypothesis.  -If the Russians are moving on Warsaw by the left bank of the Bug, Napoleon takes its line communication by Zakroczyn and while the enemy is held in check at Praga, the Emperor leads his army through Sierock.

The 4th Corps, which was the corps of coverage, occupied a large front, over 40 kilometers, while in early 1806, the 5th Corps, which had the same mission could meet in 3 hours depending on different situations.

In 1806, Napoleon, wishing to surprise the enemy, did not deploy in front of the corps of coverage a large force of cavalry; so it was necessary for the 5th Corps to be able to reunite quickly to receive the enemy.  It was not the same in 1807; the Emperor could throw a large force of cavalry starting at 50 and 60 kilometers in front of the corps of coverage.  If, in both cases, the enemy took the offensive, the results were the same, the corps of coverage would reassemble to receive it.

Returning to operations on the Omulew.

The Russians retreated slowly and kept its forces on the river; the cavalry alone could not push it; it would take the infantry.  For Napoleon it was absolutely necessary to occupy the Omulew to have his freedom of maneuver; he wrote to Soult: “We can profit for the first time by persuading the enemy to abandon this line, with a few battalions of infantry.”

Final quarters.  -On January 1, Napoleon gave orders for the Grand Army to makes its permanent quarters.  The 3rd and 4th Corps will retain the same locations, the 5th Corps at Sierock would be established in Warsaw, the 7th between the Ukra and the Vistula.

In case of attack, the 3rd Corps would reassemble at Pultusk, the 4th at Golymin, the 5th at Sierock. Napoleon would deal with various contingencies in maneuvering as we have explained above about making temporary cantonments.

Napoleon left to Soult nine regiments of light cavalry and a division of dragoons for coverage. The rest was sent near the Vistula. The division of dragoons Becker would support the light cavalry Davout in the peninsula between the Bug and the Narew.

As for Bernadotte, Napoleon entrusted him with a special mission. “The intention of the Emperor,” wrote the Chief of Staff, “is to detach your army Corps, your light cavalry and the Sahuc dragoon division to move on Elbin, covering all the bottom of the Vistula, the Danzig blockade and to threaten Kœnigsberg.” Fifteen thousand auxiliary troops were charged with the sieges of Danzig and Graudenz.  Napoleon employed his best troops to form the corps of observation; as it would be in future wars, we could use the reserve divisions to besiege the fortresses and keep the active divisions for the war campaign.

The Grand Army was to occupy the quarters indicated by the sketch.

On January 4, Napoleon gave Ney the mission to cover the siege of Graudenz.  Bessières’ corps of cavalry was dissolved.  The divisions that it included were distributed between the 1st and 6th Corps to be used for security.  The Tilly division was returned to its army corps (1st Corps), a division of dragoons was given to each of the two corps: Sahuc to the 1st Corps, Grouchy to the 6th Corps.  As for d’Hautpoul, he was kept behind the infantry.

The enemy having kept its rear a short distance from the French cavalry and the country being very broken, Soult detached seven companies of light infantry to work with the cavalry service outposts. Lannes and Davout did the same.

In the course of this campaign, we see Napoleon make judicious use of his cavalry: grouping or dividing it according to the circumstances of war.

Initially, the Emperor needed to be informed about the movements of the enemy; he formed two large corps of cavalry, which were employed in exploration and were under the direct command of the army commander.  Behind them, each corps (except the 1st Corps, which at first was away from the enemy) had a division of light cavalry for security service.

When Napoleon charged an army corps with a special mission that would put the corps in the presence of the enemy, he immediately strengthened it with cavalry:  Lannes, posted at Pultusk was reinforced with Becker; Augereau, directed on Plonsk was reinforced with the Milhaud and Watier Brigades; the corps would use only part of the cavalry in the exploration, the rest for security.

When the Emperor took his winter quarters, the cavalry no longer had to fill a security role, he took a part of the corps to the frontline, the surplus was returned behind the infantry.  The 1st Corps received Sahuc; the 6th Grouchy; the 3rd Corps had Becker; as for the 4th Corps, which was the corps of coverage for the army, he was stronger in cavalry than the others, he had nine regiments of light cavalry and a division of dragons.

In other circumstances, when the corps would have nothing to fear for their safety, for example when the enemy was already far away from them, decisively beating a retreat, Napoleon removed from the corps their cavalry division; Murat assembled under his command all the cavalry of the Grand Army, therefore had 30,000 to 40,000 horses at this disposal (letters of 9 and 13 December of Napoleon to Murat).

On January 7, Napoleon gave his general dispositions for the final quarters of the infantry.

In case of an enemy offensive movement:

The 6th Corps would assemble at Mlawa;
The 4th Corps at Golymin;
The 3rd at Pultusk;
The 5th at Sierock;
The 7th at Plonsk.

In case of attack, the four corps (4th, 3rd, 5th, 7th) would be concentrated at each vertex of a quadrilateral, the two sides facing the probable direction of enemy attack each 20 of kilometers length, the other two 40 and 50 kilometers.

The army was covered for 60 miles away by its cavalry, so it may be concentrated at any point of the quadrangle before the arrival of the enemy at this point.

Many reconnaissance were made in front of the line occupied by the cavalry.  Napoleon gave orders for the organization of bridgeheads at Pultusk, Sierock, Modlin, and Praga, whose role has been explained above.

On January 9, the light troops of Davout entered Ostrolenka, Soult’s cavalry pushed on the Rosaga.

The 19th, Napoleon learned that Ney, after his victory at Soldau, had increased following the Prussians to Kœnigsberg and had already reached Bartenstein.  He instructed the Chief of Staff to express his displeasure.  “You are ignoring, (Monsieur le) Marshal, that your local commitment affects the general plan of operations and may jeopardize an entire army.”

A leader should never engage in any local commitment without orders.

In addition, Ney had made the mistake of dispersing his troops in their forward movement.  “In the future, (Monsieur le) Marshal, the Emperor orders your corps to march en masse and never spread out, as you did in the last movement.

The Emperor commands you to make the cantonments as you have been ordered.  Do it slowly.”

The 20th, Ney began his retrograde movement under the orders that he had received through his intermediate Bernadotte.  The enemy followed him in his retirement, seeking to outflank the right of the 6th Corps.

On the 19th the 1st Corps, while proceeding to locations that had been assigned by Napoleon, was attacked near Mohrungen by the Prussians (sic).

At the same time, reconnaissance and spies realized “that two Russian divisions under Essen (24,000 men) occupied the triangle of Nuv, Lomza, Brensk; a strong column of infantry, cavalry and artillery, had left the banks of the Narew and marched on Bialla, Johannisburg and Rhein.

The 21st, Soult told the Emperor that the Russian army was divided into two columns, one of 36,000 men under Buxhouden, another of 40,000 men under Bennigsen. Davout announced to the Chief of Staff that, based on captured Russian officers, they marched on old Prussia, perhaps Kœnigsberg.

The 23rd, Davout realized that the Russians had disturbed his outposts, as deserters belonging to the corps of Buxhouden and Bennigsen had started to appear; and that, according to their statements, they have left their corps on January 15 at Johannisburg where they would meet Bennigsen’s corps.

Bernadotte, who received the news from Ney that he was pressed by the enemy, no longer thought to carry out the instructions of the Emperor; he prepares, rightly, to move on Osterode to support the retrograde movement of the 6th Corps.

Ney wrote  the 23rd at Hohenstein to the Chief of Staff, “We are assured that the enemy has detached much of his left from Ostrolenka, Johannisburg  and Nikolaeken and to move on the Passarge, debouching at Rastenburg.”

Ney stopped the 23rd at Soldau, Gilgenburg, Neidenburg covered to the north and northeast by Colbert and Grouchy, to wait until the 1st Corps to come up to the left of the 6th Corps, in its retrograde motion.

The next day he wrote to the Chief of Staff: “Reports from reliable informants agree with deserters and prisoners to state that a considerable assembly of Russian troops was at that moment between Mulhausen and Preuss-Eylau; the combined armies under the command of General Benningsen is 80,000 men strong.”

The same day, Napoleon received from Soult a letter of the 23rd, in which he informed him that according to Ney, 8,000 Russian cavalry marched on Guttstadt, Alenstein, Hohenstein, Neidenburg, and they were followed by a strong column led Bennigsen; the Prussians were attempting to meet the Russians.

Napoleon did not believe the 24th in a general offensive of the Russians; he thought that the movements of the enemy were the result of the careless commitments of Ney, he wrote to Soult however that if the enemy would make an outright offensive immediately notify Augereau and to reunite the 4th Corps at Golymin.

Davout reported at midnight that he was not worried and that “there is no doubt that the armies of Buxhouden and Bennigsen are marching on to old Prussia.”

General Campana informed Lannes that he had before him 24,000 men under Muller and Essen.

On the 25th, Napoleon admitted the possibility of an enemy attack.  He wrote to Lefebvre to send an officer to Bernadotte’s location to obtain news and to gather all forces designated for the siege of Danzig to ensure the position of Thorn.

He also ordered Augereau to send as an officer to Ney’s location and Bernadotte’s location and to prepare to assemble his army at Plonsk and Racionz.  Lannes made his preparations for departure.

But Napoleon continued to believe, the 25thtsembleion red , that the enemy would take up its winter quarters, after having repelled the immoderate attack of Ney; however, he supported the 6th Corps on the right by the 4th  Corps; commanding Soult to “occupy Wittemburg with a strong advance guard of infantry and cavalry, and link with Ney, who has entered the line and in position at Neidenberg.  “Your meeting point,” wrote the Chief of Staff to Soult, “if you are attacked in force, shouldn’t be Golymin but Przasznic.”

Napoleon moved the meeting point closer to the 6th Corps than the 4th Corps, in case of a vigorous offensive; but as the Emperor was not yet certain whether the main force of Russians were moving against the 6th Corps, he indicated a meeting point closer to Pultusk than Neidenburg (Przasznic is 40 kilometers from Pultusk, 50 from Neidenburg.)

“Bernadotte will remain on the Passarge, if the enemy wants to take their winter quarters.  If, however, it is clearly an offensive, the 1st Corps will concentrate at Osterode (we saw that Bernadotte had already had this idea) and maneuver to cover Thorn and the left flank of Ney.”

Napoleon therefore ordered him to drop the sieges of Graudenz and Danzig, as he had abandoned the siege of Mantua in 1796, to face the enemy.

If the 1st Corps was forced to withdraw to Thorn, it would be supported in this by the troops of Lefebvre and the Emperor would lead his whole army on the left flank of the enemy.