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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”. 

The Russian Offensive.

While the 19th, the Emperor said to Duroc: “we can consider the campaign finished” (see above), the 26th, he wrote:  “It seems that the enemy advances; an engagement could take place in two or three days.  This morning at Peterswalde, three leagues before Guttstadt, we took a major-general, Baron Korff, and three Russian battalions. My greatest concern is for provisions.”

The question of subsistence alarmed the Emperor; he would constantly complain of it during the cantonments of the Grand Army.  This question was indeed of utmost importance.  Lack of food could deprive them of the freedom of action: the Emperor would be forced to withdraw to the left bank of the Vistula; then he would find it difficult to cover Danzig, Thorn and Warsaw.  He might be obliged to spread out the cantonments of the Grand Army; then he might not be able to face the enemy in time.  He could not assemble his army on Osterode as he wished.  It would be impossible to bring forward part of his forces, or for all of his forces to counter a Russian offensive, either on his right or Warsaw.  The Emperor therefore employed all his activity and energy to collect the food necessary for the Grand Army, first to provide for his cantonments, then to move it forward.  He would then regain his freedom of action.

Returning to the letter addressed to Duroc:

“What impedes the union most of the divisions of Essen, Muller and the third that is currently on the Johannisburg side, is Massena.”

Massena would therefore keep these Russian divisions concerned.  Otherwise, a part of the enemy will be reinforced, on the other hand, the 5th Corps, which Massena had just taken command, would be of no use to the Grand Army.

“I desire a courier be sent to me every day by this route” (the line of the Ukra); it was the shortest route, but the most exposed, from Warsaw to Osterode.

Napoleon needed to be notified as soon as possible to all movements of the enemy against the 5th Corps to perform the maneuver that had been provided for in this case and which we talked about earlier.

“Also provide for the important news that is passed comes in hiding places, such as the soles of shoes or other, so that if the courier is caught, the dispatch is not found.”

The method is ingenious, but here the Emperor goes into detail which an army commander shouldn’t bother with.

The same day, the 26th, Napoleon wrote to Rapp:

“The enemy maneuver as if he wanted to advance.  I am resolved to give battle here (Osterode).  The only thing that gives me some concern, is food; we survive as long as you provide.”

The Emperor sent, at 5 o’clock in the evening, the following letter to Soult. “Our position here will be nice when our food supply is well secured … I hope that in four or five days, we’re in a supportable situation, and that if we were to assemble on the beautiful plateau of Osterode, we will have food.”  The issue of food is paramount. Napoleon hoped that the corps would cover four or five days to withdraw from their positions and reach Osterode fighting.

“The enemy had made movements almost similar to ours on the side of Guttstadt.  Here’s what I know of the movements of the enemy: the Prussians were on the left side of Heilsberg; they are moving before you to take Braunsberg and retake the right.  You see how this movement is wrong, and how, if we had bread and spirits, they may repent this move.” The 4th Corps had only to move themselves to Wormditt-Mehlsack take the line and flank the Prussians held in place at Braunsberg by the 1st Corps.  But, for that reason, it was of total importance that the 1st Corps occupied Braunsberg and organize a bridgehead there.  This corps had received orders to seize it, which gave rise to a struggle between Dupont’s division and the Prussians; a fight that ended in our favor.

“I do not think the enemy’s battle strength of Prussian and Russian cavalry and infantry, to be over 55,000 men.  I can assemble in a day and a half more than 90,000.”  Napoleon reassembled the Guard; Oudinot, the reserve cavalry, the 3rd, 4th and 6th Corps.

Napoleon did not believe in a general offensive of the Russians and Prussians.

At 11:30, he wrote to Soult: “I hardly think that in this horrible weather, the enemy wants to engage with us, this is a strange blindness …

We should not leave the cantonments until it appears that strength and prudence prescribes it.  If you are presented with inferior forces, crush it there, and if, by your countenance, the enemy is warned that we won’t abandon the position and we are determined to defend it. To cross a river and attack a line, must unmask the enemy forces.”  Ney and Bernadotte received the same instructions.  The resistance of the corps of coverage guides the command on the intentions of the enemy.  It will force the enemy to deploy, demonstrate its strength, especially when it has to cross a river and attack a line; it permits one to determine the place where one will find the center of gravity of the enemy forces, through the knowledge of where the enemy attack has been more persistent and more intense.

“It has always been expected that, even assuming that the enemy did not intend to fight a battle it would be willing to feel out our resolve and establish itself, if it could, on the right bank of the Vistula.”  If the corps of coverage easily repels the enemy, it is because this had been its purpose.  If the corps of coverage cannot resist the attack of the enemy, that is because it was intending to give battle.  Napoleon would then concentrate 95,000 men on Osterode; he would not make that decision without knowing which.

On February 27th, Napoleon wrote the following letters:

1o Letter to Lefebvre:

“I expect you to let me know when you are near Danzig, and a bridge is established on the lower Vistula, to move my headquarters to Elbing.”

Napoleon wanted to take his line of communication through Marienburg.

2o  Letter to Soult sent at 3 o’clock:

“It is possible that the order I sent Marshal Ney to occupy Guttstadt did not arrive on time, and he has evacuated this important position.”  Guttstadt could become the pivot of a great turning movement, whose wing marched from Braunsberg; so Napoleon focused on the regaining possession of these two points.

“In this case, I gave him orders to move tomorrow on Detterswald and on Alt-Ramten to be able to support Deppen, and stand at Mohrungen or Liebstadt.”  It is of utmost importance that Ney delays the enemy as long as possible, so that Napoleon had the time either to bring to Osterode his corps, or lead a mass of maneuver from Braunsberg.

“In the day tomorrow, I will assemble here the corps of Davout, the Oudinot Division and my Guard, and I put in motion the three cuirassier divisions.”  Where this mass will serve as the rallying point for the entire Grand Army, or else it will be led by Napoleon, as he deems appropriate.  This place is without doubt the right of the enemy.  “If the enemy had moved on the Alle, it is possible that I would resolve to make some operations on his right.” But, “up to now, there is no evidence that the enemy army has marched en mass.  It still seems to have acted against us with the rearguard, in which case, it is trying to feel us out.”

3o  At 4:30, Napoleon wrote again to Soult to tell him of trying “to raise a battalion tomorrow, take prisoners, and obtain positive news from there as to what is at Mehlsack.”

If the enemy wants to simply feel out the Grand Army with similar expeditions this will make it more circumspect.  They will take prisoners.  Napoleon had always greatly advised this means to get information on the enemy.

4o Letter to Bernadotte:

“If, for whatever reason, Braunsberg had been evacuated, my intention is to retake it.”  Braunsberg is on the road to Kœnigsberg from Danzig.  To cover the siege of that place, it was important to be its master.  We saw that Napoleon might move to this point to fall on the right of the enemy.  In addition, the city may constitute, for the 1st Corps, an excellent bridgehead on the Passarge.

5o Letter to Berthier:

“It is necessary that the bridge at Marienwerder be built before March 2.”

On the 28th, Napoleon ordered him to “prepare a study that establishes the route of the army by Osterode, Marienburg, Dirschau, Neu-Stettin and Stettin and another from Dirschau by Bromberg and Warsaw.”

The Emperor increasingly saw the possibility of implementing his project to turn the enemy’s right.  He highlights this idea in a letter written at 6 o’clock in the evening to Bernadotte:

“It seems that the enemy is making a movement on our right … The composition of this corps (General Tolstoi) … would assume that the enemy thinks we retire on Warsaw.  I think you can put an entire division at Mühlhausen, because it must support General Dupont.  We will go by Elbing, and the route of the army will shortly go through Marienburg, Dirschau, Neu-Stettin and Stettin.  Once this is established, the enemy will find itself foiled. My intention is to debouche by Braunsberg, where General Dupont is found, if the enemy is too stretched out to our right.”

Napoleon would execute a turning movement, with a pivot of maneuver on his right at Guttstadt, and a mass of maneuver to the left debouching at Braunsberg.  In early 1812, he thought to realize this operation on a larger scale, in the case where the enemy would concentrate at Warsaw .[1]

For that of 1807to be a successful strategic envelopment, it was necessary that the Russians move on the right of Napoleon.  As the Grand Army had its line of communications through Thorn, they would probably try to cut it; but Napoleon had changed that and moved it by Marienburg; they would find themselves frustrated.

Napoleon at the beginning of 1806, had planned a similar maneuver[2].  In a letter dated September 29, to the King of Holland, he saw where the Prussians, thinking his line of communications was through Mainz, sought to outflank his left; in this hypothesis, he would make his line of communications through Ulm , Nurernberg, Forchheim, moving on the left flank of the Prussians and drive them to the Rhine.

Returning to the letter sent to Bernadotte.  “When this communication (with Marienburg) has been established, I intend to put Marshal Davout at Holland and charge him with guarding the bridges of Spanden and Alken.  The tail of your corps could be placed in Mühlhausen.  A division of cuirassiers of the reserve is ready to support you in Elbing.  Looking by Elbing, by Marienwerder, even by the left bank of the Vistula, I find myself in a position to rest my troops and prepare for, in twenty-four hours, to take advantage of the first mistake that will destroy the enemy.”  The Grand Army would be ready to pounce on the enemy; it will emerge from its quarters when it discovers their line of operations on Konigsberg, as at the end of January.

“If Braunsberg is capable of some fortifications, it is time to dig in.  Reconnoiter to Braunsberg just up to the bridge of Alken … Continue to make kilns and amass some wheat and flour.  But as for all these objectives they must be done in three or four days, if we are attacked in great force by this time, he would always come together, as in the first instructions, at Osterode.”  Napoleon cannot take the offensive by Braunsberg until the reconnaissance of the land near this point, assure him of having food and he can take his line of communications by Marienburg.

At 6 o’clock in the evening, Napoleon wrote to Soult:  “I will move the division of Espagne on Mohrungen, so it is within reach, with the division to Klein, to strike … Of course my intention is that it does no service and it remains far behind … I recommend to you not use the services of the dragoon division of Klein … They are the reserve divisions that should only be used in an action.”  Napoleon, who had already split his dragoon divisions among the corps of coverage, sends a division of cuirassiers to the 4th Corps and the 1st Corps.  All these divisions should not be employed for security or exploration services, but simply as a battle cavalry.

“My intention is to occupy Guttstadt as outposts, and the line of Elditten to Guttstadt, lined with infantry and cavalry, as head cantonment; to guard the right bank of the Alle from Guttstadt up to Allenstein for my right flank, and occupy Allenstein as my rearguard.

Marshal Ney will establish his headquarters between Deppen and Guttstadt, without attaching any importance to what the enemy can do on my right. The retreat of Marshal Ney is on Deppen.”  The enemy on this point will be taken in flank by a mass of maneuver debouching from Elditten.

“It is very convenient to dig in.”

“The enemy makes movements far apart on the right bank of the Alle; perhaps not only to find supplies; but if we were fortunate enough, that these movements were made in force, we could be in position to crush them. Therefore it is important to stay on the alert and ready to resume the offensive for as long as the enemy is spread apart by two marches, my intention is to fall on the corps.”  We explained earlier how Napoleon would crush the enemy by cutting off Kœnigsberg.

On 1 March, the Emperor wrote to Berthier: “Give orders for the formation of a Polish division under the command of General Zajonchek.  This division will be held in Neidenburg and trained as a corps of observation which links Osterode and Warsaw.  My intention is that with his first regiment, it should arrive at Neidenburg six days later.”

We shall see what the role of Zajonchek is later.

On March 1 in the morning, Davout received orders to move on Libemühl that he reached in the evening with two of his divisions.  The third, that of Morand, remained at Allenstein to cover the right of Ney.

On March 2, Napoleon wrote to Soult, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon:  “The news today is that the enemy has moved to Guttstadt on Queetz, the road to Deppen, with a column of infantry, cavalry and artillery … I recommend you be filled with the spirit of the thing, to put aside any petty rivalries, and firmly fall on the flank of the enemy, if tomorrow morning it engages in a fight between Queetz and Guttstadt.”  Napoleon here applies his principles on the protection of rivers, we will see this developed further in a letter to Bernadotte, March 6.

“Everything leads me to believe that Marshal Davout is not needed; but his head is now at Mohrungen ready to support you.”  The 3rd Corps will concentrate on Liebstadt behind the 4th Corps.

Napoleon feigned to cover with the maneuver of one corps (the 6th) and two with the mass of maneuver (4th and 3rd Corps).

“The division of Espagne must reach you; however use that knowledge to your advantage.”  It will act as a battle cavalry.

Soult also received orders to send a column on Wormditt, while the 1st Corps debouched on Spanden through Mehlsack.

“This expedition,” the Emperor wrote to the marshals, “must be considered in the same respect as one would a sortie from a fortress.”  It was “intended to inspire terror.”

The 3rd, Guttstadt was taken by Ney and the enemy abandoned their positions on the Alle and from Wormditt up to Heilsberg.

Napoleon was concerned about the movements of the enemy on his right; we have seen above why the Emperor had needed information about this.

On 4 March he wrote to Morand, who held Allenstein, “to know what happens on the side of Allenstein and know the movement of the enemy on his right … The division of Milhaud’s dragoons were ordered to be near him.”

Nevertheless, all day Napoleon believed that the enemy was pushed back for some time; he recommended that Soult “to keep one or two bridgeheads, when he returned to his quarters and have them immediately available.” He wrote to Davout:  “My intention is to give the order to put you in Saalfeld.”  He did not follow his plan to place Davout in coverage; the mass of maneuver of the Emperor would therefore be more powerful.

But towards the end of the day, Napoleon became concerned about a rumor.  “We heard talk of cannon fire today from Guttstadt,” he wrote to Davout at 9 o’clock at night… “It seems that the enemy does something, some indications would suggest that it is a movement on my right; is it likely to be in force and decisive? it is that which is doubtful.”

At the same time, the Emperor wrote to Soult:

“However, I do not think that it is inconvenient to remain in the position where you are … My intention is to return to my quarters if there is no enemy movement on my right and if the bulk of his force is quiet.  If, however, he threw himself on my right, my intention is to march over him, constantly outflanking his right … I have ordered him (Bernadotte) to push forward on Spanden, so to be ready to meet you and know what the enemy does.”

On 5 March, the Emperor wrote to Soult:

“The enemy has presented yesterday at Launau with 6,000 infantry men before Ney, without a large quantity of horse … Marshal Ney is to remain in position and not to attack the enemy at Launau.

… Everything leads one to believe that the enemy is retracing all the movements it had done on that side (the right of Napoleon) because it seems to me that it should be using Guttstadt as its pivot.  But you should never guess what the enemy does.  My intention is always the same,” that he expressed in his letter of yesterday at 9 o’clock at night.

On 5 March, the Grand Army would occupy the locations indicated on the sketch. If the enemy attacks, from Launau, the 6th, 4th and 1st Corps would be rapidly assembled to receive it; the 3rd in Liebstadt, would soon join them.

On this day Davout wrote to the Chief of Staff:

“All the reports of Marshal Soult announce that the retirement of the enemy on Kœnigsberg is pronounced…

“The reconnaissance by the Major Deschamps thrust towards Chorzellen has met with hussars and dragoons of the 5th Corps.

“Reconnaissance sent on the road to Passenheim did not find the enemy; that they have been long gone”; then Major Deschamps said, “we have not seen any enemies in this area.”  This superior officer says he is sure that the nearest enemy outposts to his position are at Ortelsburg.

“Independent of the 1st Regiment of Chasseurs, I put the 12th at the disposal of General Morand to take the field and clarify the movements of the enemy on the right of the army.”  The 3rd Corps, in second line, retained only a cavalry regiment, the 2nd Regiment of Chasseurs; Morand’s division would have two regiments of chasseurs and the dragoon division of Milhaud.

The Emperor, following this letter of Davout, wrote March 6, at 6 o’clock in the morning to Soult:

“The offensive movement was to feel out my right. Passenheim, Wartenburg were evacuated, I think even Seeburg … That’s one drawback that I felt from the current moves to clarify their position; but on the other hand, they pressed in force on my right.”  The movements that Napoleon had prescribed had disengaged his right, but they had informed the Russians about the dangers they faced in trying to turn this right, the enemy might be cut off from Kœnigsberg; it would not repeat this mistake; the Emperor would not find the opportunity again to destroy it with an enveloping maneuver.  Napoleon tried to console himself with the impossibility of it having worked.  “But wishing to get through the bad weather and organize my provisions, I’m not sorry otherwise for teaching this lesson to the enemy.  I am filled with hope that, I believe it is only necessary to be patient to see him make big mistakes.  It appears that yesterday a cannonade was heard on Braunsberg, where the enemy marched to take a stand.  Scout Mehlsack and reconnoiter the strength of the enemy before Braunsberg.  If  there is a detachment of less than 20,000 men, perhaps flanking it by Wornaditt, with a lot of cavalry, could initiate a quite brilliant affair and have good results.  This could be done after tomorrow.  Marshal Davout would then support the position, and the enemy, who would marched on Braunsberg, would be attacked by you and the Prince of Ponte-Corvo.”  The corps of the enemy would be attacked in front by about 15,000 men, in the flank by 20,000, supported by 20,000; it would destroy it.  The maneuver of which Napoleon is talking about is that he told to Soult in a letter of 26 February and is similar to the one he recommended on March 2 to Soult, where a fight began between Queetz and Guttstadt between Ney and the enemy.  He was always applying the same principles for the protection of rivers.

Despite the reassuring news that he had received from his right, Napoleon wrote to Morand March 6.

“I wish that you continue to keep me informed on what happens at Passenheim, Seeburg and surroundings, and all the important news.”


[1] See the Maneuver of Wilna, by M. the General Bonnal.

[2] See the Maneuver of Jena, of M. the General Bonnal.