Story of Napoleon - H. F. B. Wheeler

The Prussian Campaign


Pitt breathed his last soon after the defeat of the allies at Austerlitz, and three months after the death of Nelson. Lord Chatham's son, no less a martyr to his country than the hero of Trafalgar, had been bent "on putting Europe to rights." Scarcely had 1806 been ushered in before the Emperor of the French gave fresh evidence to the world that he, too, had a similar ambition. Austria, still smarting from the wounds inflicted by the lash Napoleon had so unsparingly used, an invalid not yet convalescent, and unable to offer any resistance, was again the victim.

For many centuries the ruling King of Austria had been Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, although many of the German States had become practically independent in all but name. It was here that the ruler of France did not hesitate to wound. To strengthen his position he formed the Confederation of the Rhine, whereby sixteen states of various sizes, including Bavaria, Wurtemberg, Baden, and Hesse-Darmstadt severed themselves from the Germanic Empire and entered into an offensive and defensive alliance with him as Protector. The new arrangement added 63,000 soldiers to Napoleon's reserves, and provided additional barriers against his enemies. On his part he agreed in case of war to put 200,000 men in the field on behalf of the Confederation. Well might the Prussian minister at Paris assert that his master "saw around his territories none but French soldiers or vassals of France, ready to march at her beck." Prussia was almost hemmed in by the new Confederation; moreover the Grand Army continued to remain in Germany.

For a month or two there was a faint glimmer of hope that the continued war between France and England might cease. Charles James Fox, Foreign Secretary and leading figure in the Grenville administration, was not without admiration for Napoleon, and more or less informal negotiations for peace were opened. There was an exchange of courtesies, Fox sending particulars of a plot to assassinate the Emperor to Talleyrand, Napoleon releasing a few British prisoners from French fortresses. When Napoleon really showed his hand he disclosed a suspicious eagerness to obtain Sicily, the possession of which would be of great importance in his cherished scheme of establishing the supremacy of France in the Mediterranean. The Emperor hungered and thirsted after sea-power; it was the one world left for him to conquer.

Hanover was held out as bait to Great Britain, quite regardless of anything Prussia might have to say in the matter. It was this unscrupulous juggling with other folk's possessions on the part of Napoleon that kept the Continent in so unsettled a state. None knew who next might be bartered or overrun by French troops, irrespective of previous agreements. When Napoleon played cards he cheated; in political matters his morality was no more conspicuous. His sense of right and wrong had long since given way to an egotism which recognised no law, and placed himself above all codes of ordinary conduct. De Tocqueville said of him: "He was as great as a man can be without virtue."

The peace overtures came to nought. The King of Prussia entered into an alliance with Russia, and began to mobilize his army. His soldiers were for up and doing regardless of the consequences, and effected a foolish disdain of their antagonists which is well shown by Varnhagen von Ense, then a student at Halle, in his Memoirs.

"During the whole summer," he relates, "we had heard of warlike movements interrupted by hopes of peace; but after Napoleon had obtained a firm footing in Germany by means of the Rhenish Confederation, all idea of peace was at an end, and every one in Prussia called loudly for war. Prussian troops were to be seen in and near Halle on their way to the south and west, and the desire for war grew stronger every day. Some hot-headed fellows were furious if peace was hinted at, or if the superiority of the Prussians over the French was not at once acknowledged. I distinctly remember meeting an officer who asserted that the war was as good as ended—that nothing could now save Bonaparte from certain destruction. When I attempted to talk of French generals, he interrupted me by saying, 'Generals! whence should they spring? We Prussians, if you like it, have generals who understand the art of war; who have served from their youth up: such men will drive the tinkers and tailors, who date only from the Revolution, before them like sheep. . . .' This put me out of temper, and I answered bluntly, that a man became a general not by accident of birth, but by actual service; that a man's former condition was nothing; a tinker or a tailor might make as good a general as a drill sergeant."

The reference to "accident of birth" is to the fact that before the battle of Jena (1806) practically every Prussian officer was an aristocrat, a rule which it will be remembered from a previous reference in this work obtained in the French army before the Revolution.

During a journey to Berlin, undertaken in his holidays, Varnhagen tells us that he was "reminded all along the road, that we were on the eve of some great event; in every direction we met soldiers in larger or smaller detachments, with artillery and baggage waggons. In Treuenbriezen I saw old Field Marshal von Mullendorf on his way to join the army; war was no longer doubtful, and it was thought that the presence of one of Frederick the Great's heroes would fill the troops with the enthusiasm of that period, and incite them to fresh victories. I saw him with a smiling countenance making the most confident promises of victory out of his carriage window to the surrounding crowd; he then drove off amid the loud huzzas of the assembled multitude. The soldiers were singing jovial songs, and rejoicing that at last they were to be led against the enemy; everywhere were to be seen the stragglers and others rushing to join the army. The noise died away after leaving Potsdam—an unusual stillness prevailed, and the fine summer weather soon banished from my thoughts all save the objects and expectations which more immediately concerned myself."

Music and merriment were not to last for long. All too soon sunshine turned to rain, pride of race to national disaster. But it taught the Prussians a lesson they never forgot, even if they were slow to learn, and the full fruits of it were reaped on the field of Waterloo nine years later.

At first Napoleon felt confident that the military preparations in Prussia were nothing but bluff, and although war was decided upon at Berlin on the 7th August 1806, and an ultimatum sent to Paris on the 25th September, it was not until the 7th October that Napoleon heard of it, for he was then with his army. By the following day many of his troops had crossed the frontier. His fighting force numbered, in all, some 190,000 men, that of his opponents some 40,000 less, under the chief command of the Duke of Brunswick, a veteran over seventy years of age who had seen service in the wars of the Warrior King. With the French eagles marched many soldiers of the Confederation, evidence of the value of the policy of Napoleon to surround himself with vassal states. It was a somewhat one-sided bargain, for it was considerably more likely that he, in pursuing his aggressive projects, would call upon his allies more frequently than they upon him. Prussia was aided by Russia in the later stages of the campaign, for it was not until after the battle of Jena that the Czar's slow-moving forces were available. Saxony completed what might have been a most formidable triple alliance.

The Prussian general's great hope was that he might be able to cut off Napoleon's communications with France, but he was far too cumbersome in his movements to catch so nimble an adversary. The Emperor divined the plan, gave orders for an immediate concentration of his troops, and turned the tables by threatening the Prussian communications with Berlin. To Bernadotte was given the task of clearing the way for the main army. On the 9th October an affray took place between Saalburg and Schleiz, where there was an extensive wood, and the Prussians were forced to give way after a lengthy resistance. The French afterwards marched to Schleiz and carried the place. Murat, who had put himself in possession of Saalburg on the previous day, also accomplished much difficult work. More important was the action fought near Saalfeld between Lannes and Suchet and Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, in which the young prince—he was but thirty-three years of age—lost his life while fighting against desperate odds. The infantry he commanded fell into disorder, and soon got altogether out of hand. The Prince had now but five squadrons of cavalry on which he could rely, and he determined to die rather than surrender. He gave the order to charge, was wounded in several places, and at last fell from his horse, the victim of a fatal sword-thrust from a hussar. He certainly exhibited the contempt for death which Napoleon recommended to his chasseurs about this time. "My lads," said he, "you must not fear death; when soldiers brave death, they drive him into the enemy's ranks."

The campaign was speedily decided. While the Emperor was closing upon the allied forces concentrated near Weimar and Jena under the King and Prince Hohenlohe respectively, a very foolish movement was decided upon. A large portion of the Prussian forces were detached for the relief of Naumburg, leaving but 47,000 men to face the French should they appear. The unexpected happened; for on the same day the Landgrafenberg, a steep hill whose summit, wellnigh inaccessible but commanding a magnificent bird's-eye view of the army Napoleon had marked for destruction, was unexpectedly occupied by the French. Almost superhuman exertion was required to haul up the heavy artillery so that it might be placed in the most advantageous positions for the coming conflict. Napoleon invariably discarded his trappings of state during a campaign and assumed the duties of a common soldier when necessity demanded, as on this occasion. He showed himself ready and willing to take his share in what the troops called "the dirty work." He laid mines for the blasting of rocks which blocked progress up the rugged heights, tugged at the ropes by which the cannon were hauled to the wind-swept ridge, and did not retire to his tent until he was perfectly satisfied in his own mind that nothing had been left undone which might contribute to the discomfiture of the enemy.

The story is told by Marbot, who, if he tells the truth, performed prodigies of valour worthy of D'Artagnan himself. A village priest pointed out the path which enabled the French troops to ascend the Landgrafenberg. "Up this path," the genial Marshal relates, "he led some officers of the staff and a company of voltigeurs. The Prussians, believing it to be impracticable, had neglected to guard it. Napoleon judged otherwise, and, on the report of the officers, went himself to see it, accompanied by Marshal Lannes and guided by the cure. He found that between the top of the path and the plain occupied by the enemy, there was a small rocky platform; and on this he determined to assemble a part of his troops, who should sally forth from it, as from a citadel, to attack the Prussians. For any one except Napoleon, commanding Frenchmen, the task would have been impossible; but he, sending to the engineers and artillery for four thousand pioneer's tools, set the infantry to work to widen and level the path, the battalions taking it in turn, each one for an hour, and as it finished its task, advancing in silence and forming on the top of the hill. . . . The nights were very long at this season of the year, and there was plenty of time to make the path practicable not only for columns of infantry, but for artillery and ammunition waggons; so that before daybreak the troops were massed on the Landgrafenberg. The term massed was never more correct, for the breasts of the men in each regiment were almost touching the backs of those in front of them. But the troops were so well disciplined that, in spite of the darkness and the packing of more than 40,000 men on the narrow platform, there was not the least disorder, and although the enemy who were occupying Cospoda and Closevitz were only half a cannon-shot off, they perceived nothing."

In the plain below the flaming bivouac fires winked and blinked like watch-dogs at the Prussian soldiers. Some had already taken an unconscious farewell of the stars as their weary eyelids closed upon a scene of natural beauty marred by the stacks of arms, parks of artillery and baggage waggons, which told of imminent strife and bloodshed.

At four o'clock in the morning, ere the faintest streak of dawn had pierced the sky, the French camp was astir, and Napoleon with it. Had a dragon breathing fire and brimstone presented itself on the field of Jena Prince Hohenlohe could not have been more surprised than when the French advance guard suddenly appeared out of a heavy, rolling, autumn mist. The death-dealing guns began their work, the cavalry and infantry on either side fought with desperation, and the battle inclined first to the one side, then to the other. The Prussian troops showed that notwithstanding long years of inaction there was still some of the blood and iron of Unser Fritz left in them; but before the reserve of 20,000 under Michel, for whom Hohenlohe had sent, came up, he had been obliged to write a second despatch urging haste, and confiding the news that the French cavalry "has driven into one confused mass the infantry, cavalry, and artillery." When the reserve appeared on the field the addition of so large a number of men tended to steady the Prussians, and it was on seeing them that an impetuous young French officer, noting the effect, shouted: "Forward! Forward!" to the Imperial Guard, which had not yet been used. "How now?" asked Napoleon. "What beardless boy is this who ventures to counsel his Emperor? Let him wait till he has commanded in thirty pitched battles before he proffers his advice!"

The day was definitely decided by a magnificent cavalry charge led by Murat, which caused a rout that only ended at Weimar, the home of the immortal Goethe, six leagues away.

"The Emperor," says Savary, "at the point where he stood, saw the flight of the Prussians, and our cavalry taking them by thousands. Night was approaching; and here, as at Austerlitz, he rode round the field of battle. He often alighted from his horse to give a little brandy to the wounded; and several times I observed him putting his hand into the breast of a soldier to ascertain whether his heart beat, because, in consequence of having seen some slight colour in his cheeks, he supposed he might not be dead. In this manner I saw him two or three times discover men who were still alive. On these occasions, he gave way to a joy it is impossible to describe."

At the same time another battle had been fought and lost by the Prussians not more than twelve miles distant from the scene of this terrible carnage. Davout had received instructions to march to Jena by a route which would enable him to fall on the enemy's rear while Napoleon was engaging them. In endeavouring to carry out this manoeuvre the Marshal carne directly upon Frederick's army before Auerstadt. As regards material strength, the condition of things at Jena was completely reversed. Here, as we have seen, the Prussians were in the minority; at Auerstadt the French were very much weaker. Both sides fought well, and proved themselves worthy of their countrymen who were engaged in a similar struggle only a few leagues away, but when the survivors of the two Prussian armies met it was as fugitives with the common desire to put as great a distance between them and their pursuers as possible. The King, Prince Henry, Prince William, and Marshal Mollendorf were wounded, the Duke of Brunswick and General Schmettau died as a result of injuries they received, and despite the inability of Davout to continue the pursuit of the stricken enemy, the corpses of 20,000 Prussians covered the fields of Jena and Auerstadt, lay in ditches, or almost blocked the roads. Many guns and colours fell to the spoil of the victors. What would have happened had Bernadotte and his cavalry come up is too horrible to contemplate.

It is almost impossible to overstate the dreadful position in which the people of Prussia now found themselves. Mr (afterwards Sir) George Jackson, who had been sent by Fox to obtain accurate information as to what was passing in Germany, confides to his Diary under date Hamburg, October 23rd: "Everybody is in despair, everything is upset by the late disaster that has fallen on the country. . . . The letters from Berlin speak of a state of ferment that is indescribable."

On the 25th October the French entered the capital. In their despairing condition the good folk of Berlin appear rather to have welcomed the invaders than otherwise. We will let our friend the Halle student tell us what happened. "I saw the first French who entered the town," he writes. "At about midday an officer, in a blue uniform, accompanied by three or four chasseurs, rode into the town; they stopped their horses, hurriedly asked the way towards the municipality, or the mansion-house, told the idlers to stand off, and galloped away again. There they were then! Many people still maintained that these were not French, but Russians. This was evident, said they, from their green uniforms. But in a quarter of an hour there was no longer room for doubt; large bodies of cavalry and infantry entered the town, and on the following day Berlin was filled with Marshal Davout's troops. And now began a totally new life among the half-stupefied inhabitants of Berlin. We breathed again; for, instead of wild unprincipled plunderers, we found a well-disciplined gay soldiery, who were disarmed by being addressed in French, and whose officers were, for the most part, remarkable for courteous manners. This first favourable impression was not effaced by subsequent rough conduct, although it was difficult to satisfy the pressing want of so many people. We still found that we had to thank God, if we were to have enemies quartered upon us, that they were not worse than these. Nevertheless, the slovenly, dirty, ragged appearance of these little, mean-looking, impudent, witty fellows, was a strange sight for eyes which, like ours, had been used to the neatness and admirable carriage of the Prussians, and we were the more astonished how such rabble—for they almost deserved the name—could have beaten such soldiers out of the field. . .

"On the 27th October," he continues, "I was taking my usual evening walk by the so-called Lustgarten, or park, when I was struck by a new sight. The whole space in the middle, which had been always kept carefully mown, and even the sidewalks towards the palace, were covered with innumerable watch-fires, round which the soldiers of the Imperial Guard were grouped in all kinds of attitudes. The huge fires shone upon these handsome men and their glittering arms and accoutrements, and the eyes were attracted by the incessantly recurring national colours of red, blue and white. About 10,000 men were moving about in this glowing bivouac, near the gloomy-looking palace in which Napoleon had taken up his abode. The whole scene made a strong impression upon me, and when I examined the small details—for every one was allowed to go among the troops—my wonder was increased; each soldier, in appearance, manner, and authority, was like an officer—each man seemed a commander, a hero. The men sang, danced, and feasted till late in the night, while every now and then small detachments, in an admirable state of discipline, marched to and fro with drums and music. It was such a sight as I had never beheld. I stayed there for hours, and could scarcely leave the spot. The Imperial Guard remained there for some days, and all eyes were riveted by the beautiful but hated spectacle. But no subsequent impression equaled that of the first night: the fires burned more dimly; part of the troops had been detached elsewhere; and at length, small bodies of cavalry, with their horses ready saddled and bridled for instant service, were the only troops left in this encampment. The numerous bodyguard in the court of the palace was quite sufficient for Napoleon's personal safety."

But we must return to war and to misery. Strongholds which had hitherto been thought wellnigh impregnable fell with sickening regularity. Magdeburg, for instance, surrendered ingloriously to Marshal Ney, and the garrison of 24,000 able-bodied men marched out and laid down their weapons, as did 10,000 troops at Erfurt. Custrin, reputed to be one of the strongest fortresses on the Oder, was handed over to some forty chasseurs, Stettin surrendered in the same despicable manner. Soult at Nordhausen, Bernadotte at Halle, and Murat and Lannes at Prenzlow won important victories which still further weighed down the scales against Prussia. It seemed as though the army which had started out with so much noise and bragging would disappear almost to a man. One fragment still remained, that under Blucher, the rugged old soldier who was to be in the chase when the fox was at last run to earth at Waterloo. His total force amounted to about 24,000 men, against whom 60,000 troops under Soult, Murat, and Bernadotte were pitted. On the 6th November 1806, the latter slaughtered many of the harassed Prussians in the narrow streets of Lubeck, but Blucher did not capitulate until the following day, when he was absolutely compelled to do so by the limits of Prussian territory.