Story of Napoleon - H. E. Marshall

Napoleon and Prussia

All this time Prussia, the greatest of the German states, had held aloof. The King was very unwilling to plunge his people into war. So he tried to be neutral and keep the peace. Prussia had a large and, it was thought, well-drilled army, and as long as Napoleon had the Russians and the Austrians to fight, he was not sorry, perhaps, that Prussia should keep peace. He even tried to bribe the King not to fight by offering to give him the Electorate of Hanover. The Electorate of Hanover was of course not his to give. It belonged to the King of Britain.

But now, having got rid of the Russians and the Austrians, Napoleon was very insulting to the King of Prussia. Whether he really meant to insult him, and so drive him to war, or whether he was only bent on having his own way, without caring how he hurt others, does not matter. A new war, this time between France and Prussia, soon began.

Britain, Russia, and Austria would all have helped Prussia, but King Frederick William, after having held back for so long, now rushed into war before his own plans or those of the allies were ready.

Although Prussia had a great army, many of the officers were old, and the country had been so long at peace that they had forgotten the best ways of fighting.

Napoleon, on the other hand, was always fighting, always watchful, always ready. So just as he had quickly marched against the Austrians, before the Russians had time to come to help them, now he marched against the Prussians.

It was near Jena that the great battle of the campaign was fought.

Like the dawn of Austerlitz, the dawn of Jena was shrouded in mist. Not until ten o'clock did the thick clouds roll away and the warm October sun shine out. Then, and not till then, did the Prussian leader see that he had to fight, not a small part of the French army, as he had thought, but more than eighty-three thousand men, under the great Emperor himself. He himself had scarcely more than half that number.

Once more the battle raged, and once more it ended in a great victory for Napoleon, and the Prussians were scattered in fearful rout.

On the same day, and at the same time, another battle was fought. This was at Auerstadt, about fifteen miles away. It was fought by the other half of the Prussian army, against the French under General Davoust.

King Frederick William was with this army, and at Auerstadt the Prussians far outnumbered the French. But still the result was the same, and the French won the day. The fleeing remnants of both armies met, and mingled, and fled to the nearest fortresses for safety. Thus in one day the great army of Prussia was crushed.

Masses of French soldiers now poured into Prussia, and the Prussian fortresses fell one after the other into their hands. Whether the garrisons were overcome with fear at Napoleon's great name, or whether some of them betrayed their country, for one reason or another the fortresses made little resistance, but gave in quickly, and the conqueror marched in triumph to Berlin.

Crushed and dispirited, the King of Prussia tried to make peace. But Napoleon asked too much—his terms were too hard. He demanded the whole of Prussia, as far as the Vistula. Crushed though he was, the King was not ready to yield as much as that. The Russians, too, were now marching to help him. So the war went on, and it was now carried into Poland.

The march through Poland was terrible. As a general rule, it had been the custom to stop fighting during winter, and begin again in the spring. But Napoleon bound himself by no such rules. So, through rain, sleet, and snow, over roads knee-deep in mud, the army moved on. The sufferings of the soldiers were great. Their boots and clothes were worn out, and not nearly warm enough. For the winter so far north is much colder than in France. Food was hard to get, no bread was to be had, the water was muddy and bad, the houses were mere hovels, where men, cows, and pigs all lived together. "And, this is what the Poles have the impudence to call a country," said the French soldiers in disgust. "In Poland we have found a fifth element," said Napoleon; "it is mud."

Thus, fighting and marching, in cold, wet, and hunger, the army passed the Vistula.

Now at last, seeing that his men were utterly worn out, Napoleon consented to rest. He took up his headquarters at Warsaw, the capital of the province, while the army found quarters in the little villages along the banks of the Vistula.

Napoleon's weary soldiers were, however, only allowed about a month's rest. For the Russians, more used to the bitter cold than the French, began to make ready for battle as soon as the swamps and marshes, hardened by frost, made it once more possible for horses and cannon to pass.

At a little place called Preuss Eylau, not far from Königsberg, a terrible battle took place. The day was dark and lowering. Heavy clouds covered the grey sky, a bitter wind drove the frozen snow, stinging the faces of the hungry, ill-fed men, who the night before had supped on nothing but potatoes.

Yet in the midst of all this misery and discomfort both sides fought with a terrible, brutal courage. "The Russians fought like bulls," said the French. Their famous Cossack horsemen charged, and wheeled, and charged again. Cannon roared, muskets cracked and rattled. And amid the screams and horrid clangour of battle, the silent white snow whirled and fell, to be trampled and reddened with the blood of fifty thousand men. At last the short winter's day was over, and darkness covered the dreadful field, which in the morning had lain so white and unstained.

Both sides claimed the victory. But indeed it was only a useless slaughter. "What a massacre!" cried a French officer, as next day he rode across the field. "What a massacre, and without result!"

After the battle of Preuss Eylau both armies were so shattered that until the winter passed there was little more fighting. Napoleon even tried to make peace with King Frederick William, offering him this time much better terms than before. But the King answered that he could only make a peace which would include the Czar of Russia; so no peace was made.

With the coming of summer, the struggle began once more. After some fierce fighting, the war came to an end with a battle fought near the little town of Friedland.

From dawn to dark the battle lasted. The Russians fought fiercely and well. But Napoleon, as he rode about among his cheering, saluting men, cried again and again, "To-day is a lucky day. It is the anniversary of Marengo." So, roused by the memory of that great fight, the French fought with double courage. At last the Russian army, broken and dismayed, fled across the Pregel, followed closely by the pursuing French. Then, driven still at the sword's point, day by day they fled, in utter rout, until they passed the Niemen. Behind this broad river they found shelter from their foes.

Upon the one bank lay the remains of the Russian army, upon the other the French. And now that his army was shattered, the Czar sought for peace. And Napoleon, for many reasons, was ready to listen.

In the middle of the Niemen, opposite the town of Tilsit, a gaily-decorated and curtained raft was moored. Over it floated the eagle of France and the eagle of Russia. Here the two Emperors met and embraced, like brothers rather than enemies. They then went within the curtains and talked for a long time, no one being near to hear what was said. But when they came out again they seemed more friendly than before.

After this meeting the town of Tilsit, which is in Prussia, but only a few miles from the Russian frontier, was declared neutral, and both Emperors went to live there, and held their courts each in a different part of the town.

Now, instead of the horror of war, the town was full of gaiety. There were riding parties, dinners, and balls. And the Emperors, who a few days before had been bitter enemies, seemed to have become the best of friends.

The Emperor of Russia was young and handsome. He was full of splendid dreams, and eager to be great. Napoleon too was young—he was only thirty-seven, and already he was the greatest conqueror, soldier, and statesman in the world.

Napoleon was often fierce, hard, and cruel; but when he chose he could seem friendly and lovable. He conquered men and women as he conquered peoples. Now he won the heart of the young Czar. "I never had more prejudices against any one than against him," he said; "but after three-quarters of an hour of talk they all vanished as a dream. Would that I had seen him sooner."

The poor beaten King of Prussia was asked also to come to Tilsit. But Napoleon, who treated the Czar so kindly, treated the King very coldly. He and his Queen, who came with him, were not allowed to live in Tilsit. They had to put up with a little mill-house outside the town. Napoleon tried in many ways to make the Prussian King and Queen feel that they were crushed and beaten enemies. It was only out of friendship to the Czar, he said, that the King had been asked to Tilsit at all. And in the drawing up of the treaty no pity for him was shown. By it Frederick William lost half his states.