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Battle of Eylau


Napoleon Bonaparte possessed one of the greatest military minds that the world has even known, but he was not immune to hardships on the battlefield. In February 1807, the Emperor of the French fought one of his most brutal engagements at the Battle of Eylau. For two days, Napoleon’s Grand Armée faced off against the Russians and Prussians under relentless winter conditions. At fifteen degrees below zero, both sides battered each other and while Napoleon was left in possession of the field, he gained little else. In the battle’s wake, the ground was covered with heaps of frozen corpses. “What a massacre, and without a result,” remarked one of the emperor’s greatest marshals, Michel Ney. Eylau was not a defeat, but at the time, it was the largest battle of Napoleon’s career that had not gone his way.

In the summer of 1806, Prussia’s King Friedrich Wilhelm III was concerned about the extension of French influence in Germany and formed an alliance with Tsar Alexander I of Russia, who was still at war with Napoleon. Following Prussia’s ultimatum to withdraw beyond the Rhine, Napoleon led a force of 180,000 men into Germany. On October 14, 1806, the French decisively defeated the Prussians in two simultaneous battles at Jena and Auerstadt. Following these victories, Napoleon set about utterly destroying the Prussian army. In his book Napoleon: A Concise Biography, David A. Bell notes that “of the 171,000 soldiers sent into action against him,” Napoleon’s forces killed, wounded, or took prisoner all but six thousand. By early November, the Emperor of the French triumphantly marched into Berlin.

Entry of Napoleon I into Berlin, by Charles Meynier. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Although Berlin had fallen and the Prussians had been dealt a great blow, the Russians and a few surviving Prussian units resolved to fight on. Napoleon pursued his opponents eastward into East Prussia (now part of Russia), to the town of Eylau. On February 7, 1807, a Russian and Prussian force under Leonty Leontyevich Bennigsen squared off against Napoleon in an unplanned battle. The engagement cost each side around 4,000 casualties and nothing definitive was proven.

On the morning of February 8, Napoleon had a force of some 41,000. Opposed by an enemy numbering around 63,000, Napoleon fought a delaying action until his reinforcements arrived. He used cavalry attacks to counter the Russian advances, the first of which was beaten back in a blinding snowstorm. As the chaos of the battle continued, three Russian columns moved against the weak French lines. With his lines in danger of being overwhelmed, Napoleon ordered a 10,700-man cavalry reserve under Joachim Murat to charge the advancing Russian columns and center. Considered one of the greatest cavalry charges in military history, the French cavalry halted the Russian attack. They also slashed through the Russian center in two columns and as historian Adrian Gilbert writes, “re-formed in a single column in the Russian rear, and plunged through the re-forming lines again.” The bold decision paid off, allowing Napoleon to overcome the crisis that he faced. Over the next six hours of battle, each side was reinforced with more men.

The French cavalry charge painted by Jean-Antoine-Siméon Fort. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As darkness descended over the battlefield, both sides continued to slug it out. Upon the arrival of Marshal Ney’s corps on the French left, Napoleon reached numerical parity with his enemy. As the opposing armies reached exhaustion from the grueling stalemate, the fighting ended at around 10 p.m. That night, Bennigsen withdrew from the battlefield. Given the energy expended and the losses sustained, the French were in no position to pursue their enemy. It is estimated that between the 76,000 Russian-Prussian troops and the 75,000 French that were engaged at Eylau, each side suffered some 15,000 casualties.

A few months after the Battle of Eylau, Napoleon achieved a decisive victory over the Russians at the Battle of Friedland. His battlefield success effectively put an end to the War of the Fourth Coalition, resulting in a meeting with Russia’s Tsar Alexander, in which Napoleon urged him to sign a treaty of alliance. The Emperor of the French was much harsher when he dealt with the Prussian king. Napoleon stripped Prussia of fully half its territory and subjects, also severely reducing the size of Prussia’s army.

A painting of the meeting between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander on a gaudily decorated raft in the middle of the Niemen River, on the Russian border, near the town of Tilsit. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Sources

Encyclopædia Britannica: Battle of Eylau written by Adrian Gilbert.

Napoleon: A Concise Biography by David A. Bell.

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