Napoleon’s Polish Campaign: General Peter Bagration during January – February 1807
Part III: The Battle of Eylau
By Alexander Mikaberidze, Chairman of the Napoleonic Society of Georgia
At dawn, about 9:00 a.m., on February 7th, Bagration slowly retreated toward Preussisch Eylau and reached the wood that spread between these two villages. In order to maneuver more conveniently in the forest, Bagration detached all his cavalry and a part of his artillery, and assembled the Jager regiments and rest of the battalions. At 11:00 a.m., facing increasing pressure from the French, Bagration decided to retire. While retreating, the soldiers of the Jager regiments found several barrels of wine, and soon became drunk. Foreseeing inevitable capture of these soldiers by the French, Bagration ordered back hussars under the Major Generals Pahlen and Lambert which managed to rescue the drunk Jagers.
First Shots: Bagration’s Rearguard on the Zielgelhof Plateau
About a mile ahead of Eylau, Bagration decided to halt his retreat and took positions on the Ziegelhof Plateau between Tenknitten and Waschkeiten lakes, with the intention to cover the main troops on the march through Eylau. On the rising ground crossing the road, a short way after it passes the hamlet of Grunhofchen, he sited the horse artillery under Colonel Ermolov, so as to command the mouth of the defile between the woods. Immediately behind the guns, on the right, standing on the frozen surface of the Tenknitten lake, was a grenadier regiment; in the center and on the left, the Pskov and Sofia Musketeer Regiments under Major General Markow. In second line was placed the Moscow Grenadier Regiment under the Prince Carl Macklenburg. In front of the guns, covering the whole of this line, and passing back, leftwards, to and along the north-western shore of the Waschkeiten lake, the 24th Jager Regiment was extended in a line of skirmishers. Behind the Tenknitten lake, north of the road, was a musketeer regiment, with some artillery in front of it. To strengthen his forces, Bagration send his aide-de-camp, Davidov, to the commander-in-chief to ask for more cavalry. Davidov brought back the St. Petersburg Dragoon and Lithuanian Uhlan regiments, and the promise of the Kargopol and Ingermanland Dragoons and His Majesty Cuirassiers to follow later. Barclay de Tolly was charged with the defense of Eylau itself. Part of his artillery held the church height on his left, covered by infantry in front and on the left. The rest of his infantry and artillery were in Eylau, and at the saw-mill on its right rear.
It was about 2:00 p.m., when Murat’s cavalry, followed by the head of Soult’s corps, began to arrive at the edge of the woods around Grunhofchen. Soult sent forward the 18th Line on the left, on the right the 46th; Schinner’s and Vivier’s brigades, as they came up, moved to the right, through the wood to Grunberg farm, to turn the Russian left. Augereau, arriving later, was ordered to turn the enemy’s right by Tenknitten.
At first, however, the 18th and 46th Line Regiments were unsupported in their attack on the center. The 18th, slightly in advance of the 46th, crossed the end of the frozen Tenknitten lake under heavy artillery fire from Ermolov’s batteries. Changing direction to the right, and already shaken, they were met with a Russian bayonet charge led by Bagration himself. To complete their defeat, the Petersburg dragoons crossed the lake and fell impetuously on the left of the 18th, which did not have time to form squares. It suffered severely, and was thrown into complete disorder. At this moment, dragoon Vasily Podvortny seized the Eagle of the 2nd battalion. The Russians rallied themselves to defend their trophy in a desperate fight. The Pskov and Sofia regiments intervened, completing the defeat of the 18th Line Regiment.
Fortunately for 18th Line, Klein’s French dragoons arrived on the scene, and, charging the Russians, succored their colleagues, though were unable to recover the captured Eagle. Just after this attack, the 46th Line reached the Russian positions. It, too, was attacked several times, but succeeded in maintaining its cohesion during its subsequent withdrawal.
Soult ordered his regiments to retire to Grunehoffen and, placing his guns on the rising ground about Scheweken and Grunhofchen, opened fire on Bagration’s positions. The artillery duel was successful for the French, owing to their well-trained crews. Meanwhile Soult advanced part of his troops in the wood on the right, while Augereau moved on Tenknitten. Concentrating their forces, both Marshals launched a dashing attack. Bagration’s troops barely repulsed these assaults. Seeing the main forces pass Eylau, and being outnumbered and outflanked, Bagration considered his mission accomplished and ordered a withdrawal to Eylau. The French now possessed the whole plateau, but as result of Bagration’s fierce resistance, they had suffered heavy losses. As Bagration withdrew through Eylau, his troops were covered by Barclay de Tolly’s forces (the Kostroma Musketeers, 1st, 3rd and 20th Jager regiments, Izumsk and Oliovopolsk Hussars, and artillery batteries) fortified at Eylau.
The First Day’s Struggle for Eylau
The movement that began the battle at Eylau on 7 February is still unclear. It is assumed that Napoleon arranged the attack on Eylau on the 7th. Marbot claims that the battle began when the Emperor’s personal baggage, owing to misunderstanding, was carried forward to Eylau and the Russians began plundering it. Soult’s soldiers endeavored to rescue it and the Russians, believing it was a serious attack brought up reinforcements. Eventually this clash developed beyond the point at which it was possible to break it off.
Nevertheless, according to A. Ermolov, Bagration’s rearguard on his retreat to Eylau, was closely followed by the French cavalry. Recalling that Bagration began the retreat with the sight of the French on his flanks, it seems more probable that the French, having overthrown Bagration’s flank, kept moving on to the town and encountered Barclay de Tolly’s forces. This pursuit could easily have turned into an all-out attack by French forces, before Napoleon arrived on the battlefield.
The 4th and 28th Line Regiments of Soult’s corps approached Eylau from the cemetery. Having entered the streets these regiments were met with fearful fire and were then attacked by Russian infantry. The 2nd battalion of the 4th Line “was dispersed by the volley of grapeshot and almost slaughtered and pressed back after that horrible bloodshed.” Meanwhile, the embittered French assault went on. “Both artilleries fired on the streets at a distance of several sazhens the bullets poured as hail, and canon balls pierced our infantry, that crowded in the streets. ”
As the clash spiraled into full-scale battle, French reinforcements continued to flow into Eylau, fighting the Russians in the center. Barclay’s regiments were rather weakened after the bloody engagement at Hof on the previous day, but still they “performed prodigies of valor.” About 5:00 p.m., seeing the French superiority, Bennigsen ordered Bagration to withdraw from the town and the Russians began retreating. It was at this moment that Barclay de Tolly was seriously wounded in the arm.
While evacuating the town, Bagration received another order from Bennigsen requiring him to re-capture Eylau at any cost and sending reinforcements under Major General Somow. Having rallied his troops, Bagration himself led the bayonet attack in three columns. Soldiers followed him “quietly, without any noise, but when entering the streets, everybody howled ‘Hurrah,’ charged with bayonets – and we captured Eylau again.” Hence, at 6:00 p.m. on 7 February, as a result of Bagration’s decisive attack, the town of Eylau was in the possession of Russians.
After seizing Eylau, Bagration went to the headquarters, located at Auklappen, two miles east of Eylau. Meanwhile the Russian main forces settled into positions to the northeast of Eylau, with Somow’s troops holding the town. At dusk, the soldiers scattered in the town, looking for food and shelter. When Somow decided to re-gather his dispersed troops, not having indicated the exact site of assembly, Russian drums began to beat at 9:30 p.m. in northeastern part of town, close to the Russian army positions. Soldiers rushed in disorder through the whole town to the signal, leaving their positions to the French troops that dashed into the town during the confusion. Therefore, by late evening, Eylau was in Napoleon’s possession.
Nightfall separated both sides and it was a hard night to forget. Both armies spent a desperate time on an open plain with up to 25° Celcius of frost. Loraine Petre vividly describes the terrible conditions of the armies:
“It requires a strong effort of the imagination to picture the horrors of that night. The valley and the heights on either side, deeply buried in snow, were lit by the bivouac fires of 120,000 men. The flames flickered in the icy north wind which swept along the positions, carrying with it the smoke from the damp wood, and the constantly falling snow. Not even the pale light of all these hundreds of fires could impart warmth to this arctic scene. The men crowded round the fires for warmth, hardly for rest; for what rest was possible in such circumstances? Between the opposing lines of fires stood the outposts of the armies, and the sentries, who, on their cheerless posts, must have thought with envy even of their companions behind them .. Food was lacking to both sides. In the villages nothing was left but potatoes and water. Augereau and his staff with difficulty obtained a loaf or two of bread. The provision trains had not been able to follow closely the long French column, marching from Landsberg on a single road. The Russians suffered still more severely from hunger and cold. For days previously the soldiers had to prowl and dig for the buried food of the peasantry; so that, between search of provision and duty, they had scarce time to lie down, and when they did, they had no other bed than the snow, no shelter but the heavens, and no covering but their rags.”
Both armies starved, lacking provisions, shelter or fuel for fires. It has also been said that the Russians were prohibited from starting fires during the night to reduce the French knowledge of their position!
The Second Day: Frozen Glory and Slaughter
The 8th February dawned equally bitter, with heavy snow blizzards howling over the plain, the adversaries could see each other only from a short range. By this time, Napoleon had 45,000 men with 200 guns, but two corps – Ney’s to the north, and Davout’s to the south – were within marching distance. Bennigsen had 67, 000 men with approximately 300 canons , expecting the arrival of the General Lestocq’s 9,000 Prussians who were retreating ahead of Ney. There was no sign of Ney or Davout, but Napoleon was determined to hold his ground, despite his inferior numbers. Soult’s 4th Corps was placed on the left wing, Augereau’s 7th Corps on the right, with a division of cavalry on each flank, and the massed cavalry reserve of Prince Murat behind the center.
Bennigsen placed his four corps in one line with Lieutenant General Tuchkov’s corps on the right, Lieutenant General Sacken’s infantry in the center and Lieutenant General Count Osterman Tolstoy’s troops on the left. General Bagration’s troops were combined with Dokhturov’s forces. Massed batteries of 70 and 60 guns were assembled in front of the main line.
Napoleon’s plan was hinged on a double envelopment of the Russians from flanks by Ney and Davout, while his main forces pinned the foe in the center.
At 8.00 a.m. the Russian guns blazed into action, but suffered the heavier casualties from the counter-fire of the French. Napoleon launched Soult and Lasalle in an attack against Tuchkov’s troops. By 9:00 a.m. the Russians were bearing down in strength toward the French left wing and Soult was hard pressed to keep the key point – Windmill Hill – in his possession. At the same time a substantial force of the Russian cavalry attacked the approaching troops of Friant’s division, which formed the advance guard of Davout’s 3rd Corps moving up from south.
Soon both French flanks were in great peril. Napoleon decided to ease the situation by attacking the center and ordered Marshal Augereau to advance his 9,000 men. Despite his illness, Augereau advanced against the Russian line and moved into a heavy blizzard, with St. Hilaire’s supporting division on his right. In this snowy, wintry weather, both French forces diverged from their line of march and moved unwittingly straight toward the massed Russians batteries. The result was horrific – 130 Russian guns simply mowed down the French columns and by 11:00 a.m., Augereau’s corps essentially had ceased to exist. To the right, St. Hilaire’s division also was suffering from the murderous fire. The French attack was halted and then forced to recoil, pursued by Dokhtorov’s cavalry. One of the regiments, the 14th Line, was surrounded on all sides by Russian infantry and cavalry, without any hopes of escaping. Augereau did not have a single battalion available to try to rescue it. Twice he sent officers to urge the 14th Line to retreat if possible, but both perished. At last, Marbot succeeded in reaching the regiment, but it was too late. But he was not too late to rescue the regiment’s eagle, which he carried away with him while the isolated regiment stood to the last.
It seemed that Napoleon’s center was on the verge of collapse. Bennigsen launched an attack on Eylau and a desperate fight occurred around the cemetery. One Russian column advanced to Napoleon’s command post and the Emperor’s life being endangered, his personal escort had to engage in fighting, accepting heavy losses before Imperial Guard arrived and repulsed the Russians.
With his center still in peril, Napoleon gambled his last reserve and turned to Murat’s cavalry of 10,700-men. At 11.40 a.m., 80 squadrons of the French cavalry, including 6 squadrons of the Mameluks, advanced in the greatest cavalry charge in history. They overwhelmed the Russian batteries, rode over the Russian infantry and cavalry and then turned around and charged back through the Russian army, gaining a desperately needed relief for the French center.
The battle raged on through the afternoon. By 1:00 p.m. there was still no sign of Ney’s approach from the north and Napoleon decided to engage Davout’s 2nd Corps. The latter’s advance from the south, with St. Hilaire on his left, compelled Russians to reorganize their line, turning their left flank by 90° and to transfer three artillery batteries from the right wing. All afternoon the battle was fought resolutely on the southern flank, and slowly Davout forced the Russians back, threatening to break their center at 3:30 p.m., when the Prussian reinforcements finally arrived and saved it. Prussian General Lestocq had succeeded in eluding Marshal Ney, who had had no idea that a decisive battle was raging at Eylau. The falling snow and adverse wind had prevented him from hearing the sound of canon fire and he had continued to pursue the Prussians. Lestocq, on other hand had received Bennigsen’s messages and extracted his forces from Ney’s grasp by a series of skillful rear guard actions.
Upon receiving Lestocq’s reinforcements, Bennigsen threw his troops against Davout’s 3rd Corps and forced its withdrawal. Napoleon’s only hope to retrieve the battle was Ney’s 6th Corps, but it arrived only by 7:30 p.m., shortly before dusk, when it was too late.
The battle of Eylau was one of the bloodiest battles of the Napoleonic epoch. The casualties on both sides were tremendous and will probably never be known with any accuracy. Napoleon’s bulletins claimed 1,900 killed and 5,700 wounded, but the real numbers were much higher. The best estimate put the French losses at about 20,000 men. Bennigsen himself reported to Alexander that the Russian casualties amounted to 12,000 killed and 7,900 wounded.
At 11:00 p.m., Bennigsen held an urgent council of war to discuss the current situation. Bagration, Knorring and Tolstoy offered to hold positions and renew the attack. But Bennigsen, informed of the heavy losses suffered by his army, decided to withdraw. The retreat of the Russian army began on 9th February and was performed in two columns, covered by Bagration’s rearguard. On 10th February, the Russians arrived at Koenigsberg.
Bennigsen claimed a victory over Napoleon, although most of his Generals kept silent on this occasion. Having received Bennigsen’s report, Tsar Alexander ordered his troops to celebrate “the great victory” over Napoleon. It was obvious from Bennigsen’s report that the French army was crushed, having suffered losses of “20,000 killed, 30,000 wounded, near 2,000 prisoners and 12 colors.” But the news of the retreat stunned Russian society and caused general dissatisfaction. If it was the decisive victory described in an official report, why was army in retreat? This question was asked repeatedly. Furthermore, in his report, Bennigsen mentioned the capture of 12 French colors. But when Alexander requested the trophies, he received only 6. To his inquiry as to the whereabouts of the rest of the alleged trophies, Bennigsen simply replied that obviously they “were sold by soldiers at Koenigsberg.”
The period of January-February 1807 was a remarkable period in the Polish campaign. It is especially interesting in respect to the skillful rearguard actions of Bagration that gave the Russian army enough time to effect an orderly retreat to Eylau and to prepare for battle. During these two weeks of action, Bagration once again demonstrated the great tactical talents he had shown in 1799 in Italy and 1805 in Danube valley. He was the first to reconnoiter the territory with his advance guard and thus facilitate the army’s advance; he was the last to leave this territory with his rearguard, covering the main forces. British commissioner to the Russian army, Sir Robert Wilson, who met Bagration during this campaign and witnessed his rearguard actions, wrote in his Narratives:
“Bagration was by birth a Georgian, of short stature, with strong dark features and eyes flashing with Asiatic fire. Gentle, gracious, generous, chivalrously brave, he was beloved by everyone and admired by all who witnessed his exploits. No officer ever excelled him in direction of an advance or rear guard; nor had any officer’s capacity in these commands ever been severally tested; especially in the retreat from Pultusk to Eylau in the last war – a retreat of 17 days, and as of many furious combats, in which his will, unwearying energy and daring courage were incessantly exemplified. They were indeed so many days of triumph for his fame ”
Napoleon’s Polish Campaign continued… Part I: A Surprise Winter CampaignPart II: Napoleon Springs a Trap Part III: The Battle of Eylau Bibliography