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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”. 

Napoleon’s intention to move his headquarters to Finkenstein.

On March 23, Napoleon wrote to Berthier:  “The bridge of Marienburg and that of Marienwerder being established, I intend to move my headquarters to Finkenstein.”

He could finally take his line of communication by the lower Vistula. “You will please, therefore, order right away reconnaissance from the road of Saalfeld and Finkenstein to Thorn, by Freistadt, Rehden and Culmsee…; this is the communication route to the headquarters.”  Then he indicated the corps emplacements shown on the sketch.

“Marienwerder becomes the real fulcrum of the army.”  The line of operations would start from this point in the event that it would move eastwards.  This would be today the head stage of war.  (tête d’étapes de guerre)

“The topographical engineers will survey the ground from Deutsch-Eylau, Saalfeld, up to Marienburg and Elbing.  The military engineers will leave today to reconnoiter all the surroundings and determine a military position that would support the right to the lake of Saalfeld and Deutsch-Eylau, and left to Elbing.”

Napoleon wanted to have a position like that of Osterode, where he could assemble his army.

The Grand Army had four corps of coverage, 1st, 4th, 6th, 3rd; behind was a mass consisting of Oudinot and the Guard, ready to move against either an attack by the enemy on the Passarge or the Alle or against an enemy landing near Danzig; it could also serve as a rallying point for the Grand Army.

Among the points occupied by the army, Guttstadt was the farthest from the position chosen by Napoleon and 55 kilometers from it, the army would be assembled on this position in two days.

In case the enemy attacked the army on the Passarge and the Alle, and disembarked troops at the same time at Danzig, the Guard and Oudinot would move near Danzig to repel this invasion, while the corps of coverage would recoil fighting to the selected position.  It is 55 kilometers from Danzig and the same distance from Guttstadt, the Guard and Oudinot, after repelling the invasion, would have the time to join in this position the corps of coverage, and the entire Grand Army would be reunited to deliver battle.

If, however, the Guard and Oudinot arrived too late, the corps of coverage could retire behind the Vistula, and by Marienwerder and Marienburg where the built bridgeheads had be constructed.  Napoleon would soon debouche by one of them, while the other would resist the attacks of the enemy.

In the case where the Emperor would move the Guard and Oudinot to his first line, it would take three days, Riesenberg being 80 kilometers from Braunsberg, Guttstadt, Allenstein.

Napoleon charged, March 24, the Prince Borghèse to visit the works of Praga, Modlin, Sierock.  We have seen above why the Emperor attached so much importance to having bridgeheads at these points.

He demanded the same day from Lemarois:  “When Sierock and Modlin will be in a defensible state?”

The next day he wrote:  “I’ll send those troops in reserve, for any event that, with… 7 or 8,000 men, you could hold Sierock and especially Praga and Warsaw.”

On March 28, Napoleon withdrew the divisions of Grouchy and Milhaud from the corps to which they were attached.  He left the 4th Corps the two regiments of the division Klein, he detached the division Espagne, and all of the cavalry was placed under the command of Murat.  Having left Soult two regiments of dragoons, the Emperor told him to send two regiments of hussars to Marienwerder to recuperate.

Napoleon transfers his headquarters to Finkenstein.

On 1 April, Napoleon transferred his headquarters to Finkenstein.

On the 2nd, he wrote to Rapp:  “Finally, is the site (Thorn) safe from a swift blow or to defend itself? … It is urgent that I have specific answers to this here.  From one moment to another you need check it.”

Napoleon, taking his line of communications by Marienwerder, discovers Thorn presents the possibility where the enemy could try to outflank his right.

On 6 April, the Emperor gave orders to Adjutant Commandant Guilleminot “to find a good military position for an army of 100,000 men who occupy the right of the lake of Saalfeld and the left side of Christburg and to see how the enemy could be forced to evacuate the position.  The enemy is on the left and right; by right, he will find the lake of Saalfeld and Deutsch-Eylau.  On the left there is the small river Sorge river that runs from Christburg up to the Draussen-See.  This line then extends from Draussen-See to Elbing and from Elbing until Frische-Haff.”  He recommended to Guilleminot, “to reconnoiter so that we could take advantage of the marshes and natural obstacles.”

Napoleon, therefore, did not think just to stay on the defensive, waiting for the surrender of Danzig to take the offensive:  “You feel that before doing anything,” he wrote in Masséna, April 11, “that I wish to capture this important place, making from 15 to 20,000 men available to me and throwing out the enemy foothold on the lower Vistula; I am not without hope to have it at the end.  Moreover, I’d like to let the season become better.”

As long as this place was not taken, it was possible that the enemy could attempt any operation to raise the blockade; so the corps of coverage needed to be always ready to maneuver.  When the season became better, the Emperor ordered in the first days of May the 1st, 4th and 3rd Corps to camp by division in a square, being careful to choose healthy places and with good military positions, and exercise the troops in maneuvers and exercises, to keep them in readiness.

In his measures taken against a Russian attack on the Passarge, Napoleon gave his instructions to deal with a landing of the enemy near Danzig.

On May 4, the Emperor wrote to Mortier:  “Put your troops so that they can be moved on Danzig or Kolberg.” Napoleon foresaw where the landing could take place in one of these two points,” or Marienwerder, “with great rapidity”, where the Emperor, having no fear of landing, would be attacked by the Russians on the Passarge.

Formation of a reserve corps.

On May 5, he wrote to Berthier:

“Marshal Lannes, is to command a corps that would be called the Reserve Corps of the Grand Army. This corps will consist of the Oudinot Division, formed of four brigades, and the division of Verdier.  A third division (Italian) will be held in the reserve corps.  It will arrive at the end of May.  The Reserve Corps will be composed of more than 20,000 men.”

Its headquarters would be at Marienburg.

The Guard, the reserve corps of Lannes, the corps of Mortier, the cavalry reserve constituted a body ready to come to the point where the enemy attack occur.  We have seen how it could cope with both a landing and an attack on the Passarge.

On May 12, when 10,000 Russians disembarked at Weichselmünde, Mortier was ordered to come to Danzig.  Lannes awaiting his arrival strengthened the corps of Lefebvre with Oudinot.

Lefebvre received the following letter from Napoleon, May 14:

“Do not mix the corps of Marshal Lannes in the affairs of the siege; it is still only for the opposition of the corps which has been landed, so that when the corps of Marshal Mortier arrives, he can join me intact.”  

This corps, constituting a reserve, was able to be brought immediately to the point where its presence would be necessary.  The Russians perhaps enjoyed the possibility that Napoleon’s attention would be drawn to their landing forces and to attack the Grand Army on the Passarge, so you have the corps of Lannes returned as soon as possible to Marienburg.

Instructions to Massena.

Despite these events on his left, the Emperor did not forget Masséna.  On May 16, he recommended to establish a good bridgehead at Ostrolenka. “It will let you hold the enemy in suspense.”

On 17, he wrote:  

“If you had an advantageous affair at Ostrolenka and you bewilder the enemy a little, nothing prevents you to push up to Nowogrod, as it enters my plan to give the enemy concern on his entire left, which I am informed is bare.”  Napoleon wanted to hold Essen, otherwise, the 5th Corps became useless.  It should hold the Russians from marching against them.  In 1812, Napoleon would employ this deceptive means to hold them near Warsaw.

The same day, the Emperor wrote to Masséna a letter within which is found his methodical and analytical mind.

“The 5th Corps has three goals to complete,” he said:  “1o to cover Warsaw; 2o to form the right of the army; 3o be in an offensive position that gives the enemy concern on his left and the impossibility of leaving it unguarded. What position should it take to fulfill these three goals?

The enemy can move on Warsaw, along the Bug, or along the Narew.  The meeting of these two rivers, Sierock, would be the best place to camp the 5th Corps, if it only was intended to cover Warsaw … After the point of Sierock, the most advantageous position to cover Warsaw would be to stand astride the Narew between Rozan and Pultusk at the end of the bend in the Narew near Ostrykol, because at this position at Branszuyk on the Bug, there is only 4 miles and it would be impossible for the enemy to debouche, either along the Bug, or along the Narew without having attacked the camp (otherwise the enemy could be taken in flank).  After this position, that of Pultusk would be most suitable to fulfill the purpose of covering Warsaw, but it is only the third, because from Pultusk to Wyskow it is almost as far as Wyskow to Sierock, then, if the enemy were to attack Sierock it has time to retreat before one falls on his rear.

The position of Ostrolenka is only the fourth and is worse than others because they are 10 miles from Ostrolenka to Brock, as far as Brock from Sierock …

But covering Warsaw is not the only goal of the 5th Corps; it must support the right of the Grand Army and must be able to support the corps which is in Willenberg, and therefore to keep the line of the Omulew and complete this goal, the best point is Ostrolenka …

There is no doubt that Ostrolenka is the most important position to fulfill the third goal, that is to say to put the 5th Corps in an offensive position that threatens the enemy’s left and the impossibility of leaving it unguarded.  Thus Ostrolenka must be occupied, the camp fortified by redoubts and breastworks.”

The 5th Corps would be placed in the fashion indicated on the sketch.

On May 16, 7,000 Russians that had moved from Brok on Pultusk were crushed.

Napoleon did not attach importance to this attack.  “It seems,” he said in the 76th Bulletin of the Grand Army, “that these operations are designed to attract the attention of the French Army on its right; but the positions of the French army are all based on reasoning and in all cases, defensive as offensive.”  We have already seen what were the bases and assumptions.  On the Danzig side, the Russians, who emerged the 15th of May from Weichselmünde to march on Danzig, were driven back to the fort at Weichselmünde and re-embarked.

Capitulation of Danzig.

On May 26, Danzig capitulated.  Napoleon was able to take the offensive against the Russians.

On 27 May he gave the following orders:

“The General Grouchy to send 20,000 rations of biscuits for Thorn that will sustain him with ten days of bread, in the case if there is movement … The Prince of Ponte-Corvo to send 100.000 biscuit rations for Marienwerder so that in case of movement he has food for four days.  The Marshal Soult will carry to Marienwerder from Liebstadt 100.000 rations of biscuit, so that in case of a departure he will have food for four days.  We send to Marienwerder 100,000 rations of biscuits, so the corps of Marshal Lannes at Marienburg, in the case of a departure, can carry them in the caissons or country carts, to have food for several days.”

Soult and Bernadotte, who were at the forefront, had to only procure four days of food, while Grouchy, who was in Strasburg, would have to be provided for ten days.

Russian offensive.

On June 3, the Russians resumed the offensive, and preempted Napoleon.

That day, Ney reported from Guttstadt that 300 Russian infantrymen had come to attack a fortified position of 12 men and they were subsequently withdrawn.

On June 4, Bernadotte was attacked at his headquarters in Schlobitten; all his posts were disturbed from  Pettelkau to Spanden; the enemy appeared near  Pettelkau with six pieces of artillery and about 3,000 men, including cavalry 1,500.

In Spandau, where the attack was the most intense, it’s strength had been assessed as 4 or 5,000 men. Bernadotte had reported to the Chief of Staff that he had concentrated the 4th division of dragoons between the Passarge and Mühlhausen, and the six battalions of the Ebersbach camp were ready to go wherever needed.

Davout wrote to the Chief of Staff from Osterode:

“There is nothing new on the line.  The enemy has always had, Wadang, Trautzig and Jomendorf, the positions it had established since June 1st… The reports confirmed that it has strengthened Wartenburg.”

On June 4, the First alone had been attacked.

June 5 –The Emperor having received notice, at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, that Ney had been attacked at 6 am at Altkirch, sent the following letters:

1o Letter to Davout at Osterode:

“Is this a serious attack or is it just a skirmish?  One must, however, be prepared.  Marshal Ney, after seeing if he has to deal with significant strengths too, must stand on Deppen .  You’ve probably called your light cavalry.  In the case of a retirement of Marshal Ney, I want you to support his right flank … I ordered a reunion of all the cavalry.”

2o letter to Soult at Sporthemen:

This letter is similar to what the Emperor had sent to Davout, he recommended his attention to the left of Ney if he was forced to evacuate Guttstadt and encourage his retirement on Deppen.

Soult therefore supported Ney on the left, leading to Elditten.  Davout the supported the right.

3o Letter to Bernadotte, at Schlobitten:

The Emperor wrote a letter similar to the one he had sent to Davout and he added:  “Everything will be moving … although it is unlikely that after the taking of Danzig the enemy would attempt a general affair, however he must think that if he wants to do something, his serious attack will be on Guttstadt.”  This point was a tip of a salient in the first line.

At 11 o’clock in the morning at Schlodien Bernadotte wrote to the Chief of Staff.

“The enemy, that attacked Marshal Soult from 4 o’clock in the morning, has moved by 8 o’clock to the bridgehead at Spanden, he attacked strongly with about 7 to about 8,000 men and ten cannon; he was received like yesterday … I was wounded by a bullet in the neck … I do not know yet exactly what the enemy wants, but I think his offensive movement is very decided, I do not know yet what the real point of his attack is.”

At 6 pm, Bernadotte announced that the Russians who tried to overwhelm the bridgehead at Spanden were routed perfectly.

Davout wrote to the Chief of Staff:  “This moment a dispatch by General Morand arrived by a staff officer; this officer gave me the report that I have the honor to convey to Your Highness.”  The report was as follows:  “A body of Cossacks, estimated at eight hundred men, has forced about 7 in the morning, the crossing of the Alle at the bridge of Könen; this body continued to move and it is headed on Bergfried, which they attacked in front, retaking the bridge and continued their movement in the direction towards the positions of the 6th Corps.”

Ney sent the following report:

“From 5 o’clock in the morning I was informed by my advanced posts, that the enemy marched on Altkirch with a considerable force of infantry, cavalry and artillery … The enemy had established four main attacks: the first on Altkirch, the second on Amt-Guttstadt and the third on Wolfsdorf and Lingnau, the forth on Bergfried, the point where it crossed to the left bank of the Alle … It wasn’t yet about 11 o’clock in the morning that it had deployed in the front of Lingnau and Altkirch, about 15,000 infantrymen, numerous artillery and at least as many cavalry as I have in my infantry corps …

By 8 o’clock in the morning, I was enveloped completely and my communications with Davout and Soult were cut … and the retirement was made at 2 o’clock in the afternoon, in perfect order and with a unity we rarely get in such a heated affaire … At 4 o’clock, I took position at Anckendorf, and the enemy stood before me in front of Queetz … I felt, as well as the generals who accompanied me that the two lines of infantry had 35 or 40,000 men.” The 4th Corps had also been attacked at Lomitten by the Russians, but they were completely repulsed.