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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”. 

End of the enemy offensive.

The enemy seems to have abandoned any idea of offensive, Napoleon wrote to Ney.  “I wish that you return to the cantonment that you need to make according to your instructions, to the right resting on Guttstadt for frontline stretching then to Deppen … From Elditten to Guttstadt you must also reconnoiter the positions where we can make abattis and some palisades, so your first line of posts will find itself safe from the incursions of the enemy cavalry … It is on the left bank of the Passarge you would withdraw if you are forced.”  Ney formed a salient in the first line of the Grand Army and it was on him that the main enemy attack would probably fall.  If the latter occurred on the lower Passarge, it would be contained in the front by the 1st Corps and taken in flank by the 6th, 4th and 3rd Corps, the Guard and Oudinot.  We have seen how Napoleon would deal with it if it took place on his right.  The same day the Emperor wrote to Soult:

“I’d be on my side, inclined to keep quiet.  I can clearly see the Prussians’ intentions; I do not see yet clearly what the Russians have in mind.  I suppose you should keep alert and free from surprise.”

Napoleon sent that day Bernadotte a letter in which he outlines the principles on the defense of a river or any line, principles which we have seen numerous applications that during this campaign.

“I am glad that the bridgehead Spanden is already occupied; but this is not enough, we need a bridgehead at Braunsberg … It is in the defense of a bridge and a bridgehead that our good position totally derives.  Suppose that 25 or 30,000 men move on Braunsberg, and you move your army corps to cut off their passage, and, taking advantage of such a rash operation from the enemy, one or two corps debouche by Spanden to fall on his rear; if there is not a bridge and a bridge-head, you could not participate in the combat, and we would have a marked disadvantage.  A river or any line can only be defended with offensive points; for when we only defend, we run the risk without getting opportunity; but when you can combine the defense with an offensive movement, it has exposed the enemy to a greater chance of putting his corps at risk for attack.  Therefore take the time to work day and night on the bridgehead of Spanden and that of Braunsberg.”  Napoleon was to present the same principles to Eugène for the defense of the Adige in 1809 and the Elbe in 1813.

Question of subsistence.

“If I had bread,” said the Emperor, “and if the bad weather does not stop me, I’d arrived in Kœnigsberg before them, and I would have beaten them in detail.”

Lack of food fixed Napoleon to his position; too, as we said earlier, he complained bitterly during the bad winter.

On March 6, he wrote to Daru:  “It is the shortage of food that binds all my operations.”

On March 7, he said to Ney:  “We must gain a few days; my stores will be organized at Osterode and then we shall be masters of our movements.”

The 8th, in a letter to Daru:  “Please make at the earliest possible date, 20,000 quintals of flour available at Bromberg, at Thorn and the surrounding area.  It is here that we must feed the army (the bridges at Marienwerder and Marienburg were not yet established) … If I had 6000 quintals of flour at Osterode, I would be master of my movements, but they are not and that concerns me.”

The 11th, in a letter to Lemarois:  “What bothers us always, is provisions.”

Letter to Davout:  “I want to organize my food.  It is playing the lottery for us doing something in March and April.”

The 12th, in a letter to Lemarois: “My position is excellent, militarily speaking, it is bad when I have no food.”

Letter to Talleyrand:  “Today, the fate of Europe and the greatest calculations, depend on subsistence. Beating the Russians, if I have bread, is child’s play.”

The March 14 letter to Jerome:  “Send provisions, clothing, especially send to us spirits.  The most important subject today is subsistence.”

But the situation would improve; the 16th, Napoleon said to Soult “Our provisions here are very well organized.  I have at Osterode enough to feed the army for ten days on bread, flour and biscuits.  I have twelve ovens .”

The next letter to Talleyrand: “The provisions are organized.”

The 26th letter to Daru: “The army begins to be provisioned on a regular basis”, however, it would continue to experience many more difficulties in procuring food.  “Our situation was becoming alarming, in respect to subsistence,” wrote the Emperor, May 23 to Faviers.

On March 6, Napoleon had sent Dejean a proposed organization for a train crew to replace the company of Breidt.  “This Breidt company acts in a shameful way,” he wrote to him on March 20.

Mission of the Zajonchek Corps.

Returning to operations.  Napoleon, almost certain, March 6, that the Russian offensive on his center and his left would not follow immediately, would focus his attention on his right; he looked especially at the corps of Zajonchek and gave full instructions on its mission.

“The first goal of the Polish corps of observation,” Napoleon wrote, “is ensuring the flanks of the army, from Allenstein up to Neidenburg and from Neidenburg until the Omulew, which supports the left of the 5th Corps, that forms the right of the army commanded by Marshal Masséna, whose headquarters is in Pultusk.  It will leave between Osterode and Neidenburg four posts of ten men each.”  There are 50 kilometers between Osterode and Neidenburg, the corresponding posts  would be placed at 10 miles apart.  Zajonchek may therefore correspond with Napoleon in 3and a half hours.  “And put (positions) also between Neidenburg and Chorzellen in order to correspond daily with the Chief of Staff and Marshal Masséna.”

“General Zajonchek must send patrols on to Passenheim, Ortelsburg, etc., to clarify the movements of the enemy and know of everything that is on the right bank of the Alle.  He will send as soon as possible a good advanced guard to Willenberg…  This corps will push the parties on to Myszyniec, Bischofsburg and enlighten the whole party; in case of an event, the corps will withdraw on Neidenburg.”

All the land between the Alle and the chain of lakes located north of Johannisburg be subdued by Zajonchek; any enemy attack on this party will miss.  Willenberg is 80 kilometers from Osterode, and it is the same distance from this point as Braunsberg.

As a result, in case of an enemy attack on the right side of the Grand Army, as on his left, Napoleon can concentrate in three days at Osterode.

The possession of Willenberg would allow any enemy offensive on the Omulew being taken in flank.

Reconnaissance of Murat.

When the Emperor gave Zajonchek his instructions, he learned that enemy detachments were moving in the direction of Ortelsburg and Willenberg.  He immediately instructed Murat to reconnoiter the enemy forces with 6,000 infantry and much cavalry.  On March 9, he sent the following letter:

“I agree that you took with you the whole division of Oudinot … I am very anxious to learn what corps is at Willenberg.”  Davout’s corps, which, with the Guard and Oudinot formed the mass of maneuver of the Grand Army was ready to support it:  “The Marshal Davout tonight has his headquarters at Detterswalde; General Gudin must be near Hohenstein.”

Napoleon wrote the same day:  “The Grand Duke of Berg with a strong column of infantry should be at Dembenofen tonight.”

During these last days the Emperor used his cavalry differently on his front and on his flanks.  When a frontal attack of the enemy seemed likely, on Braunsberg from Allenstein, he redistributed his cavalry between his corps and had it serve as battle cavalry.  The corps of coverage through their light cavalry, and the combination of defensive with offensive movements, would report information on the enemy.  When the Emperor learned that the Russian corps were moving on his right flank, he formed a mass of cavalry supported by a corps of infantry to learn about their intentions.

The immobility of Masséna before the movements of the enemy it was worth a few comments from Napoleon:  “I am sorry to see,” he wrote March 10, “that you did not march to Willenberg on the spot, at the first news that the Russian Wolkonski division, which forms the 3rd division of Essen, had moved to this point … It is essential that you follow Essen and that you occupy Willenberg, with at least one division, if Essen marches by Lonza and Rastenburg, it seems proof of his rejoining the main army of Bennigsen; otherwise I find myself here only with the forces on hand and half your corps will become useless, while half of the corps of Essen will reinforce the army in front of me … The Grand Duke of Berg marches on the corps which is Willenberg.  You should know how unfortunate it is that I grow weak, at the time when I’m involved (with the enemy) due to something that your corps should have done, perhaps made unnecessary if you had acted decisively.”

In the Grand Army, each organ had a specific mission, well defined, complete, and it must not lose sight of it, otherwise it will become useless and the effect of this omission will affect the general plan of operations at risk to distort or prevent the execution.

Masséna was ordered to send the division of Gazan to Willenberg.

On March 10, the army was stationed behind the Passarge and occupied the locations shown on the sketch. Bridges were thrown across the Vistula at Marienburg and Dirschau.

We have seen that in this position, the Grand Army needed three days to concentrate at Osterode.  That if enemy attack occurred on the right or left, there was time to do so, Willenberg and Braunsberg being equidistant from Osterode.

If the attack occurred on Guttstadt, the lack of distance would be offset by a gain of time.  Once the 2nd Corps (sic) would have retired a little before the Russians, the 3rd Corps would fall on their left flank, the 4th Corps debouching by Elditten on their right flank.

If necessary, the Guard would move on Deppen to support the 6th Corps.  The four corps would recoil fighting back to Osterode to give time to the 1st Corps and Zajonchek to move to Osterode.

By performing the movement that came to be prescribed, Murat learned that a corps of enemy cavalry had moved on Willenberg; the Prince Borghèse crushed it.

On March 11th, Napoleon wrote to Soult:  “Tomorrow Ney takes up quarters.  Do not take yours and do not re-cross the Passarge until you are sure he will take his.”  The timing of the taking of cantonments is a critical, the enemy might take the opportunity to bother Ney; Soult must be prepared to support him.

“That the cuirassier division and the division of Klein are in a position to debouch by Elditten to support the left of Ney.” The cavalry is still used as a battle cavalry.

On March 12th, Napoleon wrote to Murat:

“Your march on Wartenburg will inform you if the enemy has any infantry at Seeburg and at Bischofsburg. Having thus clarified the position of the enemy on the right bank, it must return to the cantonment so as not to lose a man … For one reason or another, it seems they want to stay quiet and wait for a better season.  If you are near any hostile party which you can take advantage of, be sure to do it.” This would make the enemy more cautious.

On 13 March, the Emperor announced to Massena “my intention it to march on the enemy in a fortnight.”

“I can gather,” he said, “by composite marches, 140,000 men to exterminate the enemy.”  This was in effect the size of his army stationed behind the Passarge and the Alle.  The Emperor thought that perhaps in a fortnight the bridges at Marienwerder and Marienburg would be established and that the various corps had gathered enough provisions to begin active operations.

His entire focus was on food.

“Try by eight days,” he wrote in Massena, “to have for all these places 80,000 rations of biscuit bread, in reserve.”

On 17 March he wrote again:  “I have informed you that, for the execution of my projects, 80,000 rations of bread and 80,000 rations of biscuit should be available at Przaszinc, so you can go with eight days of food well insured.”

On March 18, Napoleon gave orders to Soult to procure 200,000 rations.

On 13 March, the Emperor wrote to Davout:  “We must try to prepare a reserve at your headquarters, so that in case of an event, you can give five days of  bread to your troops, a day to assembly and four days of operations.”  On March 19, he wrote him “to have eight days of bread, four to be carried by the soldiers and four that would be brought in the caissons.”  The corps would be supplied as in early 1806.

While waiting to march to the enemy, Napoleon sought information on his movements.  “He seems closer to Kœnigsberg,” he wrote March 14 to Ney. “Send some spies on your right.”

The same day he wrote to Gazan who was at Willenberg “To receive news, raise the bailiffs (baillis) for four or five leagues around you”, that is to say about a day’s march, “send for this purpose, from 400 horses and 200 to 300 infantry men, to keep constant superiority and having no scuffles.”

The Emperor wrote to Zajonchek, March 14:  “Try to grab a few Cossacks, and try to send me information of the light troops of the enemy before you.”

The Polish government was responsible for obtaining exact and prompt news of Essen and that of the enemies at Bialystok.