Napoleon’s Polish Campaign: General Peter Bagration during January – February 1807
Part II: Napoleon Springs a Trap
By Alexander Mikaberidze, Chairman of the Napoleonic Society of Georgia
To pursue the retreating French troops, Bennigsen sent the Prussians under Lestocq farther to the right, to Rosenberg, with outposts towards Freystadt, Bischofswerder, and Deutsch Eylau.
By this time, the Russian right advance guard was at Saalfeld, and that of the left, at Guttstadt. On 30 January, Bagration reported to Bennigsen the necessity of moving the advance guard toward the Allenstein. He emphasized the lack of information on the location of the main French forces and direction of their movement, warning Bennigsen of the possible consequences of this lack of knowledge. But on the same day, Bagration received orders to move his troops westward, to Deutsch Eylau, and strengthen communications with the Prussians. Obliged to obey this order, Bagration moved his advance guard to Deutsch Eylau on 31 January, with outposts on the Drewenz.
By this time, Napoleon managed to spread his trap, having Lefebvre at Thorn and down the left bank of the Vistula; Bernadotte at Strasburg; Ney at Gilgenburg; Augereau at Neidenburg and Janow; Bessieres, with the Imperial Guard, at Chorzel; Davout at Myszienec; Murat’s cavalry reserve and Soult’s troops near Oertelsburg and Willemburg; Savary, with the corps of Lannes (who was ill and remained behind in Warsaw), at Brok on the river Bug.
Having succeeded in driving back Bernadotte’s and Ney’s corps, Bennigsen was under the false impression that he had succeeded in his advance and Napoleon was about to retire back across the Vistula between Thorn and Warsaw. Bennigsen’s flank march against the French left was a skillful in design, but not accompanied by an equally skillful execution, and it failed. Bennigsen’s first mistake lay in his waste of precious time in marching up the Narew from Nowogrod to Goniondz. His second blunder was the choice to direct the march from Rhein towards the head of Ney’s column instead of toward Ney’s rear, and so cutting off the French marshal. Had Bennigsen turned to the south-west, he must certainly have separated Ney from Soult and shattered the greater part of the Ney’s corps. He would also have anticipated Bernadotte at Mohrungen and Osterode. With Ney and Bernadotte isolated, Napoleon’s position on the Upper Vistula would have been in jeopardy.
On the other hand, by halting his fatigued troops on 22-23 January, Bennigsen was fortunate, since it was too late to cut off Ney or Bernadotte, and any further advance would have plunged him more deeply into the Napoleon’s developing trap.
Chance Interceptions & Russian Escape
It was at this moment, due to the vigilance of the Bagration’s advance guard, that astonishing news arrived at the Russian headquarters. As mentioned above, Bagration had bivouacked at Deutsch Eylau with outposts on the Drewenz and Loebau. Following Bagration’s orders, the pickets had been established along the whole periphery. On 31 January, one of these videttes, from the Elizavetgrad Hussars, captured a French courier and discovered startling documents: here, stated with that clarity which normally characterized the Emperor’s dispatches, was Napoleon’s whole plan of campaign. Berthier had given this dispatch to the first officer who had come to hand. Unhappily, this young officer knew nothing of the country he had to cross and nothing of the enemy’s positions. Soon, another of Bagration’s outposts, manned by a Cossack regiment, captured a second courier with the same order. Both unfortunate couriers were captured before they could destroy the papers they carried and these invaluable documents reached Bagration. At the time of the couriers’ capture, Bernadotte, who had received no further orders from army headquarters, remained where he was, unaware of the Emperor’s intentions.
Having read the captured documents on 1st February, Bagration immediately realized the danger for the whole Russian command of staying in his current positions. The captured dispatches gave details of the positions of the whole French army and, among other things, instructed Bernadotte that “the Emperor, desiring to cut off the enemy, would prefer your joining his left; but he must trust, in this, to your zeal and your knowledge of the actual circumstances in which you are.”
Bennigsen was stunned by the revelations, obtained on the same day Napoleon’s orders became operative, and Bennigsen clearly saw that “he was rushing blindly on his destruction.” Now the Russians were armed not only with the knowledge of Napoleon’s intentions, but with the location of his corps. Bennigsen at once decided to withdraw his advanced troops and, eluding Napoleon’s trap, withdraw to the north. Meanwhile, Bagration on his own initiative ordered a retreat. To conceal his withdrawal, Bagration ordered the fires at bivouacs to be doubled and instructed one detachment of his troops to move constantly between them in order to persuade the French of the arrival of reinforcements. In addition, he detached one regiment under Colonel Yurkovsky to attack the French outposts and then retire, following the main forces. These actions, Bagration believed, would induce Bernadotte to expect a Russian attack and to halt any of his own offensive action. Seeing the apparent activity around the Russians campfires, Bernadotte was indeed convinced that the enemy intended to make an assault, and therefore, ordered the retreat to the Thorn, in accordance with the Napoleon’s last order.
On 1st February, Bagration and Bernadotte began moving in opposite directions, the former proceeding to rejoin the main Russian forces and thus reinforcing them, while the latter pushing back to Thorn and hence weakening Napoleon’s offensive line designed to envelop the Russians.
It is clear that Bagration’s actions at Loebau were justly considered as his “first invaluable service” during the 1807 campaign. Due to Bagration’s perceptiveness and resolution, Napoleon’s chances of a great success at Allenstein were doomed and the outcome of the whole Polish campaign was altered.
Unaware that his orders were known to the adversary, on 1 February Napoleon commenced the advance of the French right wing and moved Murat’s light cavalry and Soult’s corps on Passenheim, from which Dolgoruky’s troops were pushed back to Allenstein. Marshal Ney reached Hohenstein on the same time; Davout, from Myszienec sent his troops to reconnoiter towards Johannisburg, while General Charles Etienne Gudin’s division was at Chorzel. On February 1, Napoleon wrote to Cambaceres “today I am at Willemburg, 60 miles from Warsaw. I am moving against the foe. If he does not retire at once, he will find himself taken decisively in the rear”
The next day Murat arrived to Allenstein, reporting that there were no indications of enemy presence in the vicinity in contrast to Napoleon’s expectation of 15,000 Russians. The Emperor immediately changed the main direction of his attack and sent Murat and Soult to Guttstadt.
“Everything leads me to think that the enemy will try to concentrate at Gutstadt. There is no conceivable chance that he will allow his left flank to be turned. Marshal Ney will cover your left; I have no news of his arrival at Hohestein, but I do not doubt it.
However if Ney is not at Hohenstein, you must advance with great prudence, for should the foe make for Mohrungen, Liebstadt or from Osterode toward Allenstein, instead of retreating on Guttstadt – then your situation could be very alarming.”
Meanwhile, Bennigsen ordered his army to concentrate on Jankowo, where he assembled the greater part of his forces behind the heights. There he took post, his right resting on a marshy wooded valley, his left on the river Alle at Mondtken, his front covered by a small frozen stream.
Bagration’s Russian Rearguard Parries at the Alle River
On 3 February, Ney and Augereau advanced their outposts from Allenstein, driving the Russian rearguards back to their main body, and informed the Emperor of the Russians’ retreat and subsequent halt at Jankowo. The news of the Russian position at Jankowo delighted Napoleon and he immediately decided to attack them without delay and so prevent them from retiring further to the north. Napoleon immediately threw his troops towards the Russian positions. At this time, he had only part of his army, 5 divisions (of Soult’s and Ney’s Corps), the Guard and his cavalry reserve available. Seeing Napoleon’s preparations, Bennigsen hurriedly withdrew his main forces during the night in the general direction of Walfsdorf, Landsberg and Preussisch Eylau. In addition, he appointed Peter Bagration, who led the advance guard, to command of the rearguard: his principal objective was to slow the French advance and provide the main forces with enough time to reorganize and withdraw.
The first mission of the Bagration’s rearguard was to protect the bridge over the Alle at Bergfried. All day, 3 February, part of the Bagration’s rearguard, the 14th Division under Lieutenant General Kamesnkoi with 3 artillery batteries resisted repeated French attacks. Soult, attempting to find a crossing over the Alle, rushed on the Russian positions. About 3:00 p.m. Leval’s artillery came into action while his infantry attempted to cross the Alle below the town in an attempt to occupy the heights. Both assaults failed. Again, the French attacked, pushing the town’s defenders to the left bank only to be repelled by canister fire from the Prussian guns. A fourth assault also was defeated; this time the French were thrown back by bayonet and hand-to-hand fighting on the bridge and embankments. Finally, after taking possession of the hollows along the left bank, a fresh enveloping attack dislodged the Russians with considerable loss. The town was captured; Guyot’s brigade dashed onwards to Guttstadt where it found and captured Russian baggage trains, magazines and hospitals. The fight was notably bloody, the Russians losing up to 1,100 men, but they checked the advance of the French divisions for a day and Bennigsen succeeded in falling back. The trap had failed and the Russians escaped a potentially crushing defeat due to the invaluable intelligence collected by Bagration three days earlier.
Meanwhile, Bennigsen’s army was moving quickly northward. Information on Soult’s presence at Bergfried and the capture of Guttstadt by Guyot, caused Bennigsen some anxiety about his line of retreat. The course he followed in retreating was the only chance of assuring the communications with Koenigsberg, which was now threatened by the loss of Bergfried and Guttstadt. Therefore, Bennigsen headed towards Wolfsdorf, but the movement was very slow. Bagration, moving north under constant French attacks, reached Wolfsdorf on 4 February only to find that the main body had continued its retreat further northward.
Bagration’s Rearguard Skirmishes at Wolfburg, Heilsburg & Hof
On next day, Bagration decided to make a stand and fight Murat’s troops to give Bennigsen more time to reorganize army and accelerate the march. He advanced one hussar and two Cossack regiments, placing a Jager regiment within the village, while his main body was located on the hills behind Wolfsdorf.
Upon Murat’s approach, the Hussars and Cossacks attacked and then, according to the Bagration’s order, promptly withdrew, together with the Jager regiment, through the village. The French rushed into Wolfsdorf pursuing the Russians, but unexpectedly ran Bagration’s main body. A savage fight took place. Having correctly deduced the extent of the Russian position, Murat decided to maneuver so as to outflank the Russians on both sides. He sent two regiments of infantry to the right, and cavalry to the left. At the same time, Bagration led several bayonet counter-attacks, pushing the French troops back, forcing Murat to recall his forces and continue the artillery bombardment.
During this action, Bagration learned that behind the rearguard were gathered a number of carts and transports that would delay his withdrawal. Bagration was asked for permission either to move them from the road or destroy them. Bagration calmly replied, “What for? We are the rearguard. We must not yield a single cart or wheel to the French, but preserve all of them,” categorically demanding the continued movement of all the transports. Having spent three hours at Wolfsdorf and ensured the retreat of the main forces, Bagration began to pull back.
While these events were occurring, Bennigsen detached a force to hold Heilsberg and protect his left flank, andcontinued his retirement on Landsberg. He took position for the night at Frauendorf, while Bagration continued his rear guard actions.
“Prince Bagration retreated slowly and vigorously, occasionally halting. His actions were remarkable for calmness and quiet. Acting swiftly, Bagration did not hurry his soldiers. The great composure of the hero was transfusing to his troops, who blindly trusted him…”
On 6 February, there were two rearguard actions. Davout marching along the Alle attacked the Russians at Heilsberg and seized bridges, while the main French forces encountered stiff resistance just south of Landsberg, at Hof, where Bagration left a strong rearguard of 7,000 men under Major General Barclay de Tolly. This bold engagement lasted until nightfall, when the rearguard slipped away in the early morning hours of the night and Russians losses amounted to in 2,000 men, while French lost 1,400 men.
On night of 7 February, Bennigsen left Landsberg and moved in the direction to Preussisch Eylau, where he intended to give Napoleon a battle. Bagration’s rearguard was ordered to delay the arrival of the French at the battle field as long as possible, so the main forces could take positions and prepare for the battle. Despite this difficult assignment, Bagration showed a remarkable composure. His aide-de-camp, future famous guerrilla leader Denis Davydov, recalled of Bagration:
“the Prince firmly dictated … the order to the rearguard; all of us were laying on the floor, and although none of us had slept for last 4 days, I could not see a single man asleep. The reason of our insomnia and anxious spirits was that we already knew about the occupation of Hof by the enemy; the enemy’s main forces were, therefore, only in few sazhens (old Russian measure of length) from us, and we were left alone by the army which was hurrying to Preussisch Eylau. Besides, the adversary, having already taken the road from Heilsberg to Pr. Eylau, could either anticipate us at the latter city or cut us off. During the night several Generals, including Count Osterman, Count Dimitry Golitsyn, came to Bagration and condoled with him on his fate. But the Prince was not only undistressed, but continued to joke, as he was accustomed to in moments of great peril”
Napoleon’s Polish Campaign continued… Part I: A Surprise Winter CampaignPart II: Napoleon Springs a Trap Part III: The Battle of Eylau Bibliography