The Battle of Hellsberg, 10 June 1807. This is Wilson’s battle map of 1810, clearly indicating the formidable line of Russian redoubts on high ground flanking the town.
‘I am very happy to see the enemy wished to avoid our coming to him,’ comments Napoleon on hearing of Bennigsen’s attacks along the Passarge. He quits Finkenstein for the front on 5 June, riding in an open carriage surrounded by bodyguards, later switching to horseback. The emperor, with the whole Grand Army in his wake, is riding towards the final showdown with Bennigsen. It is time to make the Polish gamble pay off.
Napoleon approaches Deppen on 7 June. Stretching miles to the rear, his columns advance: toiling up dusty dirt tracks in suffocating heat. Each man is carrying extra cartridges, and supply waggons sag under the weight of artillery ammunition. Since Mohrungen, 15 miles (24km) west of Deppen, the troops have breathed the scent of war: burning houses, rotting corpses. Napoleon finds Deppen a ruin, torched by Bennigsen before turning-tail for Guttstadt. According to Pierre François Percy, Napoleon’s Organizer of Military Heath Services: ‘We stopped for a meal; a beautiful young girl stared hungrily at my hunk of black bread … I offered her a crust; she blushed and put it into her mouth. Eating with difficulty, she turned away and wept. I had given her a glass of brandy, which she swallowed from politeness.’
Napoleon is delighted by developments, but remains puzzled about Bennigsen’s motives: ‘Everything leads to the belief that the enemy is on the move, though it is ridiculous on his part to engage in a general action now that Danzig is taken … The whole thing smells of a rash move.’ Unsure of his enemy’s whereabouts, Napoleon orders Murat forward to find prisoners. On the following day, 8 June, the emperor is presented with captives from Bagration’s rearguard. They tell of Bennigsen’s march on Guttstadt. Napoleon orders an immediate advance, led by Murat’s 12,000 troopers. Among their number is Sous-Lieutenant de Gonneville of the 6th Cuirassiers: ‘We found the villages fearfully devastated, the inhabitants fled or dead in their homes; in one of them there were five corpses side by side, and a child of twelve still breathing. Colonel d’Avenay took him, had him attended to, saved his life, and then kept him as a servant, and left him a sum of sixty pounds by will …’
Murat drives Bagration back on Guttstadt, where, aided by Platov’s Cossacks, the Russian general makes a gallant stand. Bagration holds out until the arrival of Ney’s infantry around 8.00 p.m. Then he slips over the Alle, and melting into the dusk, follows the rest of Bennigsen’s force to Heilsberg.
Napoleon enters Guttstadt on 9 June but does not tarry long. The pursuit is to continue, and Murat’s advance guard will lock horns with Bagration’s rearguard once more. Meanwhile, peasants are recruited to dig defensive ditches and prepare earthworks (in case of a Russian counter-attack), while starving Frenchmen strip their fields bare.
At dawn on 10 June the bulk of the Grand Army quits Guttstadt, striking north-east up the parched road to Heilsberg, some 12 miles (19.3km) beyond. Meanwhile, Murat makes good progress, reaching the outskirts of town before 10.00 a.m. Following him, at some distance, are the corps of Soult and Lannes (leading the ‘Reserve Army’ from Danzig). According to F.D. Logan:
‘Heilsberg lies in a hollow on the left bank of the Alle, which is crossed here by three bridges. The rising ground, which surrounded the town, had been fortified by the Russians during the spring by a line of redoubts on either bank. The south side of the river was thickly wooded. On the north side, west of Heilsberg, there was a slightly undulating plain across which, and parallel to, the Russian position, flowed the Spuibach. To facilitate communication with either bank Bennigsen had constructed several bridges. The Russian Army was drawn up on both sides of the river, four divisions and most of the cavalry being on the left, and five divisions on the right bank.’
Bennigsen’s position at Heilsberg is unassailable: at least by means of a frontal attack. The Russians hold the advantages of high ground, prepared defences, and superiority of numbers. They cannot be evicted from of Heilsberg at the sword’s point, but must be manoeuvred out by an outflanking operation. But the need for such a finesse is lost on the hothead Murat, who leads his unsupported cavalry to the attack.
As advance guard commander, Murat’s job is to probe Bennigsen’s strength and reconnoitre the ground before Napoleon’s arrival. But having driven the Russians from the outlying village of Launau, he boldly advances to Bevernick, a stone’s throw from Bennigsen’s batteries, overlooking Heilsberg’s western approaches. Here his attack stalls, brought to a halt by Russian artillery fire. Frustrated, and already in a filthy temper, Murat must wait for Soult’s infantry before pressing on.
About 3.30 p.m. General Savary arrives before Bevernick with two infantry regiments and six guns. The village is quickly carried, but Murat’s troopers are scattered by Russian cavalry and the French are halted once more. Meanwhile, the remainder of Soult’s infantry battles forward to Heilsberg, raked by volleys from guns on the opposite bank of the Alle. Progress is painfully slow and Murat – kitted out in a flashy white uniform and red Moroccan leather boots – is reduced to the role of spectator. Having already accused Savary of cowardice – prompting the observation that Murat wanted ‘less courage and more common sense’ – Napoleon’s cavalry supremo decides to take matters into his own hands. With no possible target but Bennigsen’s now passive squadrons, Murat orders a charge, as witnessed by de Gonneville of the 6th Cuirassiers, part of General d’Espagne’s command:
‘At this moment the grand duke of Berg (Murat) came up to us; he came from our right rear, followed by his staff, passed at a gallop across our front, bending forwards on his horse’s neck, and as he passed at full speed by General Espagne, he flung at him one word alone which I heard, “Charge!” This order, given without any further directions for an attack on sixty squadrons of picked men, by fifteen unsupported squadrons, seemed to me the more difficult to understand, since in order to get at the enemy there was a nearly impracticable ravine to be crossed by twos and fours, and it was then necessary to form under the enemy’s fire 100 paces from his first line. In case of a check we had no possible means of retreat, but the order was given and the thing had to be done …’
And done it is. Altogether, de Gonneville’s regiment charges six times, and by day’s end, each man’s sabre will be dripping with blood. As for Murat, he throws himself into the thick of the fighting, heedless of all danger, as his biographer, Atteridge, describes:
‘The cavalry was engaged with a superior force of eighty Russian squadrons, and there was hard hand-to-hand fighting. Murat had a narrow escape. Charging beside Lasalle, at the head of the hussars and chasseurs, he had his horse killed under him. He caught and mounted a riderless horse, but was hardly in the saddle again when he was cut off and surrounded by a party of Russian dragoons. He was fighting for his life, when Lasalle in person arrived to the rescue, cutting down several of the enemy. A few minutes later, Murat saved Lasalle’s life in the mêlée: “We are quits now, my dear general,” he said, grasping his hand.’
But the bloodshed continues and Murat has a second horse killed under him. A corporal of cuirassiers offers the marshal his mount, and off Murat gallops, leaving a red Moroccan boot in one of the stirrups of the dead horse.
Napoleon arrives too late to stop Murat’s madness, but even with the emperor present, the folly continues, as Marshal Lannes – appearing around 10.00 p.m. – launches a fruitless assault on Bennigsen’s redoubts under cover of darkness. This act of lunacy – doubtless intended to impress the emperor – results in 3,000 needless casualties to add to the 10,000 already suffered. By 11.00 p.m. the fighting finally fades, both sides leaving the battlefield to the locals, who, like a legion of ghouls, come to strip the dead. Meanwhile, Sous-Lieutenant de Gonneville returns to his bivouac, famished, fatigued, and bloodstained:
‘The baggage had not come up; we had no bread or anything else to eat. I had a little tea made in a bit of a canister shot case. The ground was covered pieces of these cases, and shot and muskets. The day was spent in burying our dead, and putting the living in order as far as might be … Next day, about five in the morning, the train arrived. We had bread, but very little of it; General Renauld gave me half a bottle of beer, which I shared with Marulaz; since the preceding evening we had been living on the grass, which we plucked and chewed … the emperor passed through us, and was saluted by acclamations to which he seemed to pay no attention, appearing gloomy and out of spirits. We learnt later that he had no intention of attacking the Russians so seriously as had been done, and especially had desired not to engage his cavalry. The grand duke of Berg had been reprimanded for this, and followed the emperor with a tolerably sheepish air. We again passed the night on the field of battle, lying side by side with the dead; then next day we commenced our march, after getting a ration of bread.’
Another hungry soldier is Jean-Baptiste Barrès, who beds down on the battlefield with his comrades of the Imperial Guard: ‘The day closed without result, each side retaining its positions, and we bivouacked on the ground we occupied, amidst the dead of the morning’s battle. We had been twelve hours under arms, without changing our position.’
But there is no rest for Bennigsen. Sick with fever (he fell unconscious from his horse several times during the battle), midnight finds him scribbling his report to the tsar:
‘This day at noon Bonaparte attacked the Russian Army in the position on the left bank of the Alle with his whole force. A short time before the attack, Prince Bagration was detached to Launau, where he was attacked by a force greatly superior; and was obliged to fall back. A considerable number of troops then received orders to advance from every quarter, while others formed the reserve. The firing began on all points, and the enemy was forced to leave the field of battle to the Russian troops, who acquired new glory on that day. The loss cannot yet be ascertained, but it is very considerable on both sides; and amounts on the part of the French, at least to 12,000 men in killed and wounded …’
At dawn on 11 June the men of both sides meet in silence to remove their wounded and bury their dead. Another costly battle of attrition is expected by all, but suddenly – too late for over 20,000 maimed or murdered men – the rival commanders come to their senses: Heilsberg can only be taken by a turning action. And so, as Napoleon prepares to march around the town’s flanks, Bennigsen prepares to evacuate. Russian guns still boom throughout the day, but as soon as night falls, Bennigsen quits:
‘finding that the enemy might cut off all provisions from my army in its present position, and detach a corps to Königsberg, I humbly beg leave to state to your royal Majesty, my determination to quit this place tonight, and march to another position near Schippenbeil, in order to be able to protect those behind the Alle, the transport of provisions etc., and in case the enemy marches to Königsberg, to follow him immediately.’
And at 4.00 a.m. on 12 June, the French hit town. On entering Heilsberg, they find piles of provisions, stores and wounded: all abandoned by Bennigsen in his haste to escape encirclement. But Heilsberg cannot be described as a French success. As at Eylau, Napoleon is left in possession of a battlefield, not a decisive victory. As F.D. Logan states: ‘Heilsberg is only one more instance of the failure of a frontal attack carried out by successive assaults and with no attempt at combined action by the different corps. The position was strong and the assailants were inferior in numbers …’