Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

Friedland and Tilsit


Napoleon saw every reason for a speedy and more vigorous prosecution of the war, which threatened to be prolonged indefinitely. The ranks of his army had been seriously thinned, and although he had obtained 80,000 conscripts but five months before, he found it necessary to call for a second levy of the same number, a very serious drain on the resources of France, for in the natural order of things the young men would not have been called upon until September 1808, eighteen months later. The urgency of the demand is shown in the Emperor's despatch to Cambacerus: "It is very important that this measure should be adopted with alacrity. A single objection raised in the Council of State or in the Senate would weaken me in Europe, and will bring Austria upon us. Then, it will not be two conscriptions, but three, or four, which we shall be obliged to decree, perhaps to no purpose, and to be vanquished at last." To talk of defeat was not usual with Napoleon, and although he added that he was not going "to wage war with boys," he most certainly did so. In June 1807 the total force at his disposal amounted to 310,000 troops, that of the allies 130,000 men.

The capture of Konigsberg not being practicable at the moment, the fall of Danzig, an important strategic point, was eagerly anticipated by Napoleon. The place had already endured several notable sieges, and notwithstanding Lefebvre's energetic measures he was not able to send the good news that he had accomplished his purpose until the end of May 1807. The slow progress was partly due to the number of young, inexperienced soldiers with whom Lefebvre had to work, and also to a certain jealousy he manifested towards the engineers, the grenadiers being his favourites. "Your glory is in taking Danzig," Napoleon wrote to the old spit-fire. As 900 pieces of artillery were captured on the fall of the great fortress at the mouth of the Vistula, it must be conceded that the work was done well, if all too slowly for the patience of the Chief.

On the 5th June Ney was surprised by a Russian force, the Marshal losing 2000 men. Five days later the troops under St Cyr and Legrand met with disaster, and 12,000 of the rank and file were killed, wounded, or taken prisoners. These reverses were followed by the frightful field of Friedland, fought on the 14th June, the situation for France being alone saved by the intrepidity of Victor. The Russians under Bennigsen, seconded by Prince Bagration, behaved with exceptional bravery, retreating through water which reached nearly as high as their arms. Fifteen thousand of the enemy, including many who were drowned in their last desperate attempt to reach the opposite shore, were slain on this the anniversary of Marengo, and nearly 8000 Frenchmen fell.

Jackson, who had remained in the ill-fated city of Konigsberg until the last moment, tells the story of Friedland in his Diary, and as he had every opportunity of obtaining facts at first hand, we will let him relate further particulars of the tragedy:

"However great the loss sustained by the allies at Friedland, and it cannot be put at less than twenty-four thousand in killed, wounded, prisoners and missing, yet everything that valour and bravery could effect was achieved by them; and had the activity and ability of their leader borne any proportion to the courage of his troops, this battle, as disastrous as that of Austerlitz or Auerstadt, would have been as glorious for us, and as important in its consequences, as those were for the French; but these reflections are now as useless as they are sad. On the night of the 11th, Bennigsen, crossing the Alle, began his retreat from Heilsberg, which, with little intermission, he continued until he arrived on the evening of the 13th opposite Friedland. There he found a few squadrons of the enemy, who were driven across the river without much difficulty. He himself followed, and took up his quarters that night in the town, in front of which is a plain flanked by a wood; detaching a few regiments just before Friedland, to secure the safety of his quarters.

[Illustration] from Story of Napoleon by H. F. B. Wheeler


"At between three and four in the morning, the enemy, masked and covered by the wood, began his attack on the right wing, supported by troops that carne by degrees from the other side of the river; over which there was but one bridge and two pontoons. Notwithstanding these disadvantages, the Russians each time successfully repulsed the attacks of the French, both on their right and centre, with great loss to the enemy—with the one exception of a battery, carried in the first instance but immediately retaken—until seven in the evening, when Bonaparte came up with ten thousand fresh troops against their left. This decided the fate of the day. The Russians, worn out, as well by their late hard marchings and want of food, as by the fourteen hours of incessant fighting they had sustained, could not make a stand against this new shock, and in less than an hour began a very disorderly retreat. The general confusion was increased by the difficulty of recrossing the Alle, and the necessity of again passing through the town, which was on fire in several parts from the enemy's shells. Numbers were drowned in fording the river; being hardly pressed by the French.

"The extent of our losses both in men and cannon should be attributed to these circumstances rather than to any decided superiority of the French in the field. Their effect, too, on the troops, who had fought and had borne up so bravely through the day, was discouragement and dismay, and converted what might still have been, under abler leadership, a well-conducted retreat into a disorderly rout and precipitated flight.

"The Russian officers were unanimous in their reprobation of Bennigsen, who has betrayed the army, they say, if not by downright treachery, at least by the grossest ignorance and utter want of energy. 'If he is not removed,' says every military man, even the warmest of the war party, 'we had better make peace to-morrow; for to attempt to fight a battle with him as their leader is only to sacrifice the lives of brave men without any possible chance of success.' . . . The French entered Tilsit yesterday afternoon, and commenced firing at the Russians across the river. The fate of Europe is probably decided."

The immediate effects of the battle of Friedland was the capitulation on the 15th June of Konigsberg, which had been admirably defended by the Prussian general L'Estocq, and an armistice between the French and Russians, in which Prussia was graciously allowed to share several days later when Napoleon and Alexander had talked over the matter together. Their meeting-place was a raft in the river Niemen, where they remained for nearly an hour alone, the conference being extended two hours longer on the admittance of the Grand Duke Constantine, Bennigsen, and Kalkreuth. King Frederick William, who had left Konigsberg for Memel a short time before the fall of the former town, had to content himself with riding up and down the shore in the rain. A more humiliating position for a successor to the throne of the hero of the Seven Years' 'Par, who never received an insult tamely, is difficult to conceive. Napoleon despised the weak monarch, and by his subsequent conduct showed that he had no better liking for the beautiful Queen Louisa. On the following day the King was admitted to the Council, but when the fate of Europe was under discussion the two Emperors repaired to their raft alone.

Napoleon paid delicate attentions to the Autocrat of all the Russias. He walked about with him arm in arm, and reviewed his troops before him, a compliment which Alexander duly returned.

Meneval, one of Napoleon's secretaries, who was present at Tilsit, affords us an interesting little glimpse of the two monarchs as they fraternized. "So intimate did the two Emperors become," he says, "that, when on returning from their excursions the Czar was to dine with Napoleon, the latter would not allow him to go home to change his dress. He used to send somebody to the house where Alexander lived to fetch the things he needed. He used to send him his own cravats and handkerchief through his valet. He placed his big gold travelling bag at his disposal, and as Alexander had praised the carvings of the various fittings, and the way in which the bag was arranged, Napoleon made him a present of it before they separated. When they returned before the dinner hour it was for the sake of a free tete-a-tete. On such occasions they used to leave the King of Prussia, and go into a little gallery which adjoined the Emperor's workroom. Sometimes Napoleon would bring the Czar into his study and ask for his maps, which included one of Turkey in Europe: I have seen them bending over this map and then continuing their conversation as they walked up and down. Schemes of partition were occupying them. Constantinople was the only point on which they were not visibly agreed."

It seemed like a case of love at first sight, but the wooer sought more than peace and goodwill; he aimed at a definite alliance with Russia. This he achieved, and although the Czar is to be blamed for having broken faith with Great Britain and Austria so speedily, much must be forgiven him if only because both Powers had done little more than applaud the performer in the great war drama which had just ended. Prussia, as might be expected, came off very badly in the final settlement. Silesia and the provinces on the right bank of the Elbe were given back to her; those on the left bank, with the Duchy of Brunswick and the Electorate of Hesse-Cassel were formed into the Kingdom of Westphalia and handed over to Jerome Bonaparte; nearly the whole of Prussian Poland was added to the possessions of the King of Saxony, and became the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. The remaining province, that of Bialystok, was added to the Czar's territory. The war which had been proceeding between Russia and Turkey was to end, Russia withdrawing from the Sultan's Danubian Provinces. French troops were no longer to be quartered in Prussia.

These are the chief clauses of the famous Peace of Tilsit, signed between France and Russia on the 7th July 1807, and between France and Prussia two days later. A secret treaty was also assented to by Alexander and Napoleon, who not only agreed to join their armies in mutual support should either of them decide to make war on any European Power, but mapped out the Eastern Hemisphere as future spoil, Napoleon's particular plunder being Egypt and the coasts of the Adriatic Sea, which would be extremely useful in French designs against England. The reigning Kings of Spain and Portugal were to be deposed for the special benefit of the Bonaparte family. The Czar also promised that if peace were not made with Great Britain, whereby she recognised the equality of all nations on the ocean highway and handed back the conquests made by her since the year of Trafalgar, Russia and France would together renew the war against England. In that event Denmark, Sweden, Austria and Portugal would also be compelled to join the allies and close their ports against British ships. If the great Sea Power consented to the arrangements so thoughtfully made on her behalf, Hanover was to be given back to George III. England successfully disposed of, the complete domination of the Eastern Hemisphere might come within the range of practical politics.