Map of the Battle of Jena from F. N. Maude’s 1909 work, 1806: The Jena Campaign. The French are in red. Note the French formation north advancing in column preceded by skirmishers. Note that other French formations have redeployed into line to engage the enemy, and notice the Prussians and Saxons have deployed their cavalry on the wings and infantry in the center, just like the good old days of Frederick the Great.
Prussian Infantry: 1. Fusilier, 40th Regiment 1806 2. Drummer 1806 3. Musketeer, 43rd Regiment 1806 4. Jaeger 1806 5. Staff officer 1806
14 October 1806
French: At Jena: 46,000 to 54,000 men. Commander: Napoleon Bonaparte. At Auerstädt: 26,000 men. Commander: Marshal Louis Davout.
Prussian: At Jena: 55,000 men. Commander: Prince Frederick Hohenlohe. At Auerstädt: 50,000 men. Commander: Karl Wilhelm, duke of Brunswick.
Disastrous Prussian defeat led to complete reform of the Prussian military, most importantly the establishment of the General Staff system, leading to the dominance of Prussian military in Europe.
In 1805, Napoleon was at the height of his power and talent. Although unable to launch his proposed invasion of Great Britain that year, he employed the army set aside for that purpose in the two battles that best showed his genius: Ülm and Austerlitz. Austrian General Mack was so swiftly surrounded at Ülm (20 October 1805) that he had no choice but to surrender before giving battle; at Austerlitz (2 December 1805), Napoleon’s army crushed a combined Austro-Russian force. The alliance between Russia and Austria was dissolved at that point, but the fact that Prussia had been urged to join it and had hesitated certainly contributed to the outcome at Austerlitz. Prussian King Frederick William III vacillated in the months preceding the battle, unsure if Austria would conclude a separate peace after he joined Austria and Russia. Napoleon had offered him an alliance and possession of the state of Hanover if he joined with France, but the war party in Prussia argued strongly against subordinating Prussia to Napoleon. Frederick William’s hesitance doomed the Austrians and Russians at Austerlitz.
Soon after the battle, Prussia did accept Napoleon’s offer, for Frederick William lusted after Hanover. Unfortunately, so did Great Britain, which had previously dominated that German state through the ruling House of Hanover, which occupied the British throne. In the early months of 1806, Britain negotiated with Napoleon over territories in Italy and Germany, and Napoleon made overtures of returning Hanover to Britain. Further, Napoleon forced on Prussia an agreement ceding the Duchy of Cleves and forcing cooperation with the Continental System, the French emperor’s economic warfare against Britain wherein all the Continent would cease trade with it. The potential loss of Hanover and the definite loss of income from British trade aroused Frederick William, and he finally swung his support to the war party in the Prussian court. With the inclusion of 20,000 soldiers from the allied state of Saxony, the Prussians could field an army of just over 200,000 men.
That swing affected Russia, which was also in the midst of talks with Napoleon concerning the recognition of territorial adjustments in Italy. The proposed agreement would establish Napoleon’s power in Italy through states that he established, give Russia a free hand in the Balkans, and also withdraw French troops from German territory. Seeing Prussia grow hostile encouraged Czar Alexander to reject the proposed French treaty and instead begin to treat with Frederick William, but any potential assistance from Russia was too far away.
The Prussian army had long held a position of highest respect in Europe, thanks to the organization and reputation of Frederick the Great. In the middle of the eighteenth century, he had made Prussia a power to be respected because of his own genius and the organization of the army, which he inherited from his father, Frederick I. In the War of the Austrian Succession (1747–1750) and the Seven Years’ War (1757–1763), Frederick the Great had consistently shown more skill and daring than any of his opponents, and the iron discipline that he forced on his men made them virtual automatons doing his will. The only problem with such a system was that it depended on an extremely talented leader, but, after Frederick’s death, no later monarch had his vision or competence. The army was the same, but its command was not. Still, the reputation endured, and Napoleon had not yet fought such an established military force. Napoleon knew, however, that the men in charge of the Prussian army, from the king through the upper ranks, were still thinking in terms of Frederick the Great’s time, and Napoleon’s army had changed all the rules. Depending on that ultraconservatism in his enemy, Napoleon on 7 October rejected an ultimatum from Frederick William to leave German lands. It took him only a week to prove to Prussia that their army was not what it used to be.
Napoleon had been preparing for this operation for some time. When he learned on 18 September 1806 that the Prussians had marched into Saxony 5 days earlier, he launched his own plans into motion. Concentrating around Bamberg and Bayreuth on the Main River, on 8 October he marched northward in three columns through the Thuringian Forest. He aimed toward the town of Gera, where he assumed that the Prussians would join together the three portions of their army. Along the line of march from Bamberg to Gera lies the town of Jena, some 20 miles east of Weimar. It was there that Prussian Prince Frederick Hohenlohe brought his force, and two other parts of the army under the command of the duke of Brunswick and the king himself met with Hohenlohe just north of Jena on 13 October. They decided to withdraw toward the Elbe River, the western border of Prussia; Hohenlohe was to deploy between Jena and Capellendorf as a rear guard to cover the army’s withdrawal through the town of Auerstädt, 12 miles to the north.
Napoleon, on learning of his enemy’s position from prisoners, decided to divide his force in two. He would lead one force up the Saale River toward Jena, while the second, under Marshal Louis Davout, would march along a northerly line west of Jena toward the Elbe River. Thus, Napoleon could establish a blocking force under Davout if the Prussians continued to withdraw or use it as a flanking force if they stood to fight. Napoleon approached Jena from the south on the afternoon of 13 October, learning that the bulk of the Prussian army was encamped on a plateau just west of the town. He planned to spend 14 October positioning his men for battle the next day.
Early in the morning of 14 October, Napoleon visited various units to give them encouragement. It was a very foggy morning, but the Saxons in the Prussian army heard the cries of “Vive l’Empereur!” This cry worried not only the Saxons but also the Prussian commander, Hohenlohe, who had assumed that the French force near him was little more than an advance guard or reconnaissance in force. Thus, both commanders misread the enemy’s strength. Napoleon thought he faced the bulk of the Prussian army rather than the rear guard; Hohenlohe found out too late that he faced most of the French army.
In the morning fog, the French troops received their orders to march at 0600. Within 3 hours, they had captured the villages that were their objectives, and Napoleon ordered his forces to stop and reassemble their units. The Prussian advanced force, under General Tauenzien, lost a large number of its men in the fighting, but regrouped to the rear of Hohenlohe’s force to act as a reserve. As Hohenlohe brought up more men to meet the French, both commanders were positioning their troops for the battle to come. It began much sooner than expected, however, because of the impetuousness of one of Napoleon’s marshals, Ney.
Fearing that the battle might be over too quickly for him and his men to gain their share of glory, Ney pressed his attack on the Prussians at the village of Vierzehnheiligen. Napoleon was forced to send in men to support this premature attack, but the supplemental French troops captured the village and immediately met the front of the Prussian army lined up in the open outside town. Retreating back into the protection of the village, the French began shooting at the exposed Prussians. The discipline imposed on the Prussians since the days of Frederick I did not fail; indeed, it was the major cause of the Prussian defeat that day. Under intense musket and artillery fire, the Prussian troops stood their ground for 2 hours and died in huge numbers. As that was taking place, Napoleon ordered attacks on both Prussian flanks. Shortly after noon, he ordered a general advance, and the decimated Prussians were pressed back all along the line.
Hohenlohe ordered a withdrawal north-westward, but the retreat soon degenerated. The only hope to save the Prussians from total rout was the arrival and defensive stand of reinforcements marching from Weimar. They, however, arrived too late and found themselves facing a victorious and exuberant French army that in a matter of minutes tore the reinforcements to shreds. By 1600, the French pursuit was in full swing, with the only serious resistance coming from the Saxon troops, which stood their ground and died.
Napoleon soon learned that his defeated enemy was not the main Prussian force, which was instead engaged to the north with Marshal Davout at Auerstädt. Davout, who was supposed to act as the flanking assault on Hohenlohe’s position, found himself with 26,000 men facing more than 50,000 Prussians. The battle there also started about 0600 in the fog, when the two armies stumbled into each other at the village of Hassenhausen. Davout had time to deploy his leading division before the fog cleared, and they soon beat back four Prussian cavalry charges. As more Prussians came up to engage, their commander, the duke of Brunswick, was killed. For a time, the army had no commander because Frederick William had no military knowledge or experience, and he was too paralyzed by events to appoint a replacement. Later Prussian cavalry charges also failed to break the French infantry squares, and the Prussian army withdrew toward Auerstädt, about 3 miles to the southwest of Hassenhausen. The French flanks had advanced far enough forward to bring flanking artillery fire on the retreat. Rather than commit his reserve cavalry to beat back the pressing French, the king shortly after noon ordered a withdrawal toward Hohenlohe, whom he did not know was at the same time watching his men run as fast as they could. As the two retreating armies met and learned of each others’ fate, the rout became even worse. Frederick William and his queen fled for Berlin.
The vaunted Prussian army almost vanished in a matter of hours. The French inflicted almost 25,000 casualties on the Prussians and captured as many prisoners. Most of the remainder of the army simply disappeared. The French also captured all the Prussian artillery, some 200 pieces. For this immense victory, the French lost about 4,000 casualties at Jena and another 7,000 at Auerstädt. French forces scoured the countryside for Prussian survivors, while Napoleon led about half the army to Berlin, which he entered without a fight on 27 October. Napoleon offered terms to Frederick William, who turned them down upon receiving a note from Czar Alexander that 140,000 men were to be sent if the Prussian monarch would but stand firm. Any Russian promise was useless because French soldiers occupied every fortress in Prussia in less than a month, taking the prisoner count up to 100,000. Still, Frederick William (based in East Prussia) organized what troops he could to join with the Russians. Together they fought to a draw against Napoleon’s forces at Eylau in February 1807, gaining some hope of a successful future, but that was crushed by Napoleon’s decisive victory at Friedland in mid-June 1807. After that, in the Treaty of Tilsit, Russia pledged an alliance and Prussia was truly punished.
In the wake of the battle at Freidland, Napoleon humiliated the Prussians by not only seizing all their military supplies but taking away significant territorial possessions. All land east of the Elbe River was ceded; before the Prussian campaign, Napoleon had organized most German principalities into the Confederation of the Rhine, and western Prussian lands were awarded to them. Large tracts in the east went into the newly created Duchy of Warsaw. The Poles appreciated the territorial acquisition and recognition, but being vassals to the French grated on them.
Jena/Auerstädt was one of the most complete victories Napoleon ever scored; it wiped out an entire army in one blow. It was not, however, the political triumph he hoped for. He assumed that, with Prussia defeated, the British would see the hopelessness of their position and come to terms with him. When they did not, Napoleon announced the Berlin Decree, which shut European trade up even tighter than did the Continental System. It mandated the seizure of any and all British property in Europe and forbade neutral trade with Britain. London responded with the Orders in Council, forbidding neutral trade with France or any of its possessions. Thus, full-scale economic warfare was launched, and the major neutral country engaged in trade with the two combatants was the United States. The strains brought on by the trade restrictions and the British blockade of Europe led eventually to the War of 1812.
The humiliation that Prussia felt had a long-term positive effect. Before the war, a few senior officers warned of the problems inherent in the outdated Prussian military, but theirs were voices crying in the wilderness. The chief voice was that of Major-General Gerhard von Scharnhorst. After the Treaty of Tilsit, Frederick William appointed him head of the Military Reorganization Commission. With the aid of four other forward-looking officers, Scharnhorst began overhauling the Prussian military. Realizing that future kings and commanding officers may not be blessed with sufficient military talent, Scharnhorst and his compatriots developed the concept of the General Staff. Rather than have officers appointed by superiors on the basis of birth or social standing, officers in the future would rise via talent and education. That would keep the best officers in command and advisory positions, able to give the best advice to their superiors, including the king, or to lessen the effect of bad orders given by those same superiors.
Scharnhorst died in 1813, but was replaced by the more aggressive August von Gneisenau. He oversaw the implementation of Scharnhorst’s staff concept in the wake of Napoleon’s ultimate defeat at Waterloo in 1815. The General Staff was to engage in planning, coordinate the various branches of the military, and oversee operational readiness. The development of institutions of higher military education also promised to locate and promote talented officers. The creation of the concept of war games took the Prussian army to the heights of preparedness, whereas the institution of a staff military history section meant that past mistakes were to be avoided and observers were to visit past and contemporary battlefields to see how battles were won in the past and how other armies fought in the present. The Prussian General Staff created the finest military organization of the nineteenth century, with the goal of institutionalizing excellence. Quick and decisive Prussian victories over Denmark in 1864, Austria in 1866, and France in 1870 showed the rest of the world the value of such an organization, and by the early twentieth century every nation with any pretensions to military power developed their own General Staffs. Thus, Jena was the fire that destroyed Frederick the Great’s army, from whose ashes the phoenix of the nineteenth-century Prussian/German army arose.
Britt, Albert. The Wars of Napoleon. West Point, NY: United States Military Academy, 1973; Chandler, David. The Campaigns of Napoleon. New York: Macmillan, 1966; Dupuy, Trevor N. A Genius for War. London: Macdonald’s & Jane’s, 1977; Fuller, J. F. C. A Military History of the Western World, vol. 2. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1955; Maude, F. N. The Jena Campaign, 1806. New York: Macmillan, 1909.