Friday, January 13, 2012

February 8, 1807 – Napoleon Defeated at Eylau

At the height of the War of the Fourth Coalition against Napoleon, France came under defeat by Russia because of a simple failed charge. Napoleon had already defeated three such coalitions, finishing off Austria in 1805 at Austerlitz and forcing them to become his ally. Prussia stood to take Austria’s place among the allies against him, and Napoleon swiftly overran the Prussians, taking their capital Berlin in October of 1806. From there he marched eastward against the Russians, the final European power on the Continent to stand against him. He pursued their fleeing army until they stood to fight outside the East Prussian town of Preußisch Eylau.

The battle began in the afternoon of February 7 with unproductive French assaults on the heights and spilled over into the town itself as both sides attempted to take it, arguably for the simple reason that the soldiers were trying to find warm shelter from the snowstorm. The fighting died off at 10 PM when the Russians began a retreat and waiting for the French to attack again the next morning. The French obliged with Napoleon giving an attack from the center and his general Augereau, gravely ill at the time, advancing from the left just as a blizzard began. Artillery was blinded; the French firing on Augereau’s men and the Russians waiting until they fired point-blank as the French came out of the snow. Augereau fell back, and Napoleon was caught too far advanced as Russians pursued the retreating French. He had used the town church’s tower as a command post, and that is where the Russians caught him, taking him prisoner before the Imperial Guard could arrive.

The French army frantically assaulted the Russian lines to get Napoleon back, but the Russians had spirited him away from the battle while chaos reigned among the French. The battle crumbled into defeat, although the counterattack by the remaining Prussians under L’Estocq was repelled by the French cavalry under Marshal Ney, saving the French from a route. Ney united the French and organized them to wait for the terms from Russian General Bennigsen. Bennigsen, who held the enviable position as the first to have suffered Napoleon a reversal at the Battle of Pultusk the previous December, determined to hold Napoleon under strict guard and await the arrival of Tsar Alexander, commenting to his secretary that he had no idea what to do having caught the man known as "the oppressor of Europe and the disturber of the world's peace.”

Alexander soon arrived in Tilsit, where Napoleon was imprisoned in luxury. The younger Tsar had come to the throne at approximately the same time as Napoleon, and the two found that they shared similar ideals about autocracy as well as upholding the freedoms of the people. Alexander held great respect for Napoleon, though he had determined him to be “the most famous tyrant the world has produced" after the execution of the duc d'Enghien, which had prompted Alexander to join Britain on what he believed to be a mission from God. After Austerlitz, Napoleon had attempted to reopen diplomatic relations with Alexander, but the Tsar had waited until he suddenly had the upper hand. The two conferred terms of surrender, and, during the discussion, Napoleon astonished Alexander with visions of a world reined over by a French-Russian alliance. The talks concluded with Alexander exclaiming, “What is Europe? Where is it, if it is not you and we?”

The British demanded Napoleon be handed to them or at the very least dethroned, but Alexander understood that, with the tyrant of Europe in his possession, he was the new authority. A treaty was produced in July that protected Austria from being broken up and assured military assistance in the colonial dreams of an “Empires of the East and West” in which Napoleon controlled the Danubian states west, Russia held sway over Finland, and the two worked together to drive out the Ottomans and eventually conquer India. Alexander further drew up terms to end the Fourth Coalition, leaving Britain alone in its refusal to make peace with Napoleon.

Defeated in the east, Napoleon begrudgingly returned to Paris to find Spain in flames as its people rose up against his attempts to conquer the Peninsula. The British embarked a vicious guerilla war, and it was more than enough to occupy Napoleon’s time defeating it finally in 1813. War-weary Britain was at last forced to make peace with France and focus on the second war with its lost colonies in America. Afterward, Napoleon made good on his word to the idealistic Alexander (whom he called a “shifty Byzantine”), joining in the Russo-Turkish War with a Grande Armée of 450,000 soldiers. He rode through the Balkans, liberating the Serbs, Bulgars, and Greeks who had been awaiting arrival of Russian troops that had moved only as far as Bucharest. Although the campaign succeeded in besieging Constantinople, malaria and other diseases devastated the French troops, and Napoleon eventually retreated.

Europe came under peace for a time until a wave of revolution struck in the 1820s following Napoleon’s death in 1821. Spain and Portugal again rebelled, as did Rome, the Piedmontese, German students, and the Kingdoms of Naples and Sicily. Revolutionary sentiments struck Ireland with the attempts of Catholic Emancipation, but Britain held fast while the French Empire under the ten-year-old Napoleon II shattered. Russia, who had been the diplomatic giant of Europe for over a decade, also came into trouble with the Decemberists seizing power after the unclear succession upon the death of Alexander and a revolt of the Polish in the 1830s. Europe remained without a clear superpower until the gradual rise of Britain with its industrial empire eventually controlling nearly a fifth of the surface of the Earth.


In reality, the Imperial Guard arrived in time to drive away the Russian forces, which were held off by Napoleon’s staff. Thanks to one of the largest cavalry charges in history, the Battle of Eylau was a French victory, but without any great gain. Napoleon became master of Europe after the thorough defeat of the Russian army at Friedland, but his Continental System of economics meant to starve out the English drove away his allies and led to his disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812.

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


Site Meter