This painting of Pierre Vafflard (1777-1837) shows the removal of Rossbach columns by the French, four days after the battle of Jena. The symbol is one that cannot be clearer: Napoleon avenged the defeat that Frederick II of Prussia had inflicted on the army from Louis XV to this meme place 49 years earlier. One of the two columns will be taken to Paris.
The destruction of the Prussian forces in these twin battles caused considerable demoralization. While certain battalions and squadrons did everything possible to hold together, the army no longer had a leader to reverse its fortunes. What made matters worse was that the great fortresses that might have checked the French advance and given the field army a chance to rally and reorganize capitulated without so much as firing a shot. Spandau, Stettin, Küstrin, and Magdeburg surrendered, breaking Prussia’s back. On 25 October the French entered Berlin.
The painter Charles Meynier represents, four years after the events, Napoleon’s entry into Berlin, October 27, 1806. Surrounded by Chasseurs of his guard and followed by his marshals, the Emperor passes under the triumphal arch of the Brandenburg Gate. The crowd displays very various emotions from pain to curiosity and admiration. No resistance is registered. The real awakening of the Prussian patriotic feeling will occur several years later.
Three days later, the remnants of Hohenlohe’s force, 10,000 men, capitulated at Prenzlau. The only force that had shown much spirit was one that gravitated toward Blücher. It fought its way to the Baltic coast before being forced to surrender at Rackau near Lübeck on 7 November. Only East Prussia and some fortresses along the Baltic coast now held out against Napoleon.
Prussia was now utterly broken. The losses the Prussians suffered in the two battles are difficult to determine exactly. However, the Prussians lost around 10,000 killed or wounded at Jena, along with 15,000 prisoners, 34 colors, and 120 guns, against a loss to Napoleon of around 5,000 men. At Auerstädt, the Prussian losses were around 15,000 dead and wounded, 3,000 prisoners, and 115 guns, while the French lost 7,000 dead and wounded. After the whirlwind pursuit, the Prussians no longer had an army and had lost control of all their territory west of the Oder River.
Immediately after the Battle of Jena, Napoleon had demanded the cession of all Prussian territory west of the Elbe River. However, after the ignominious capitulation of so many key fortresses, he further demanded that Prussia accept French occupation of all Prussian territory up to the Vistula River and that all uncaptured fortresses should surrender. Frederick William refused these terms and fell back into East Prussia, hoping to secure the help of Russia.
The Prince Elector of Saxony, Frederick Augustus (Friedrich August) III who had supported the Prussians previously, now submitted to Napoleon. In return, he was made king of Saxony as Frederick Augustus I and joined the Confederation of the Rhine.
Napoleon now entered East Prussia, having gained a large number of Polish recruits by promising the restoration of their country’s independence. He besieged the important fortress of Danzig (now Gdansk) at the mouth of the Vistula. It held out until 24 May 1807. The Pomeranian fortress of Kolberg under General August von Gneisenau successfully resisted until the end of the war.
In the Battle of Eylau of 8 February 1807 Napoleon lost 35,000 of his veterans in a bloody stalemate with a Russian army under General Levin Bennigsen, supported by a corps of Prussians. The relatively easy victories of Napoleon’s earlier campaigns were not to be repeated. The Allies undertook to continue the war by the Treaty of Bartenstein of 26 April. However, Prussia was too weak to do much, Britain was committed to various colonial adventures, and Sweden hardly got involved. As Austria remained neutral, Napoleon now concentrated on dealing with Russia. His victory over Bennigsen at Friedland on 14 June ended the military phase of the war. It was concluded with the Treaty of Tilsit of 9 July 1807.
Napoleon took the opportunity of reducing the nation that had once been his greatest threat to the status of a second-rate power. Prussia lost all its territory west of the Elbe, which was included in a new Kingdom of Westphalia with Napoleon’s brother Jérome Bonaparte as king. Much of its Polish territories were included in the new Duchy of Warsaw under the king of Saxony. Prussian ports were closed to British commerce, extending the Continental System established by the Berlin Decrees of 21 November 1806. The tsar could have argued for more lenient treatment for Prussia, but secret clauses to the treaty allowed Russia to gain territory at the expense of Sweden and the Ottoman Empire. That compensated for Napoleon’s gains in central Europe.
This peace settlement was payment to Prussia for its pursuit of a policy of neutrality with France. For over ten years, Prussia had allowed the burden of the defense of Germany to fall on Austria’s shoulders. Even then, it was not too late to change this. Had Prussia wholeheartedly committed itself to supporting Austria and Russia in 1805, then Napoleon’s empire may well have ended then. Even in 1806 Russia was considered a potential enemy, so an inappropriate strategy of an aggressive defense was implemented, allowing Napoleon to strike first, quickly and decisively. Prussia played into Napoleon’s hands and paid the price.
The Treaty of Tilsit marked the zenith of Napoleon’s power. Russia and France had effectively divided the continent of Europe between them. Only Britain, master of the seas, remained opposed to Napoleon. As a result of its folly, Prussia was to suffer several years of humiliation and was not to resume its opposition to France until 1813.
The Kingdom of Brandenburg-Prussia, with its capital at Berlin, was a central European state, part of whose territories were included in the Holy Roman Empire. The ruler of Brandenburg was a prince elector of the empire. As well as the core provinces of Brandenburg, Pomerania, East Prussia, and Silesia, the king of Prussia also ruled over enclaves in western Germany and acquired substantial gains during the Partitions of Poland toward the end of the eighteenth century. Ruled by the House of Hohenzollern, Prussia had risen from relative obscurity in the early eighteenth century to become a great power, thanks largely to the wars of conquest undertaken by Frederick the Great. This increase in status put Prussia in the position of being a rival to Austria for hegemony in Germany.
Prussia’s population in 1795 was around 8.5 million inhabitants, including 2.5 million Poles. Following the Treaty of Tilsit in July 1807, Prussia was left with around 5 million inhabitants. Territorial gains after the Congress of Vienna in 1815 increased this to about 10.3 million. The population was largely rural; the capital and principal city, Berlin, had about 172,000 inhabitants. The economy was largely agrarian based; some three-quarters of the population were farmers. Prussia was devastated by the costs of the war and the indemnity demanded by the French after the defeat in 1806. The national debt increased from 55 million taler in 1806 to 206 million taler in 1816.
The territorial gains made in western Germany in 1815 changed Prussia’s strategic position in Europe, taking it from being a central European power with an eye toward the East to one leaning more to the West. As well as sharing a border with Russia and Austria, Prussia now had a common frontier with France. The new territories in the Rhineland were economically more advanced and rich in natural resources but did not enjoy a territorial link with the main part of Prussia to the east. The settlement made in Vienna in 1815 determined the pattern of European politics for the coming hundred years.
Although Prussia enjoyed considerably fewer resources than its larger neighbors, it was nevertheless one of Europe’s great powers and able to raise substantial military forces when required. The Prussian Army had a good reputation for its effectiveness on the field of battle, its professionalism, especially of its officer corps, and its aggressive spirit. Other armies copied its methods. Despite that, the Prussian Army suffered the most devastating defeat of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars in the campaign of 1806.
Prussia committed substantial forces to the earlier campaigns of the Revolutionary Wars. An army under the Duke of Brunswick invaded France in the fall of 1792. It took the fortresses of Longwy and Verdun before being halted at Valmy on 20 September. Prussian forces fought in the Rhineland for the next three years, acquitting themselves well against the invading French, with their light forces performing particularly well. The costs of this war drained the Prussian economy, and because there were easier pickings in the East, the Prussians withdrew from the war with the Treaty of Basle in 1795. This separate peace with France began a decade of Prussian isolation that ended with the catastrophe of 1806.
The Prussian Army did mobilize its forces toward the end of 1805, but the planned intervention in the War of the Third Coalition did not come to fruition because Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz on 2 December preempted this. Having conquered Austria and thrown Russia’s army out of central Europe, Napoleon next turned his attention to Prussia. He goaded Prussia into a war in unfavorable circumstances in the fall of 1806, the Prussian army suffered a severe defeat at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstädt on 14 October, and any chance of continuing the war vanished in the wake of the highly effective pursuit undertaken by Napoleon’s forces and the capitulation of several important fortresses. The Treaty of Tilsit concluded the following summer reduced Prussia to a second-rate power subservient to Napoleon’s wishes.
The years that followed were marked by economic devastation caused by the reparations demanded by Napoleon and the costs of supplying an army of occupation. Patriots such as Karl August Fürst von Hardenberg, Heinrich Freiherr vom Stein, Gebhard von Blücher, Gerhard von Scharnhorst, and August von Gneisenau plotted and conspired against the French. Secret societies prepared the country’s intellectuals both mentally and physically for an uprising.
The unrest became apparent in 1809, with a regiment of hussars commanded by Ferdinand von Schill staging an uprising in support of the Austrians, who were now at war with France. Frederick William III considered it untimely to risk all for a confrontation with Napoleon and did what was necessary to suppress the discontent. A group of dissatisfied officers, including Karl von Clausewitz, left the army in protest in 1812, when a contingent of 20,000 Prussians marched under the command of General Johann von Yorck with Napoleon into Russia. Fortunately for the Prussians, they were allocated to the left wing of the Grande Armée, so they did not suffer the fate of the main body on its retreat from Moscow. Yorck allowed his corps to become separated from the French at the end of 1812 and withdrew it from the war with Russia with the Convention of Tauroggen (28 December 1812). This act of rebellion sparked the uprising in northern Germany that developed into what became known as the War of Liberation.
Having signed an alliance with Russia at Kalisch on 28 February 1813, Prussia went to war with France a month later. Although outnumbered by Napoleon’s forces, the Prusso-Russian army acquitted itself well in the spring campaign of 1813, fighting the battles of Lützen and Bautzen. Joined by Austria that fall, the Allies were overwhelmingly victorious at Leipzig in October. With Napoleon now driven out of Germany, the Allies pressed on to Paris in the spring of 1814. An army of Russians and Prussians under Blücher played a significant part in these events, fighting battles such as Montmirail, Chateau-Thierry, Craonne, Laon, and Vauchamps.
In 1815 the lion’s share of the fighting was to fall on the Prussian Army of the Lower Rhine, which fought three battles in a whirlwind campaign, at Ligny, Wavre, and Waterloo, before blazing its way to Paris, taking a number of French fortresses in its path. Appropriately, it was Blücher’s Prussians that first entered Paris in 1815, marking the end of the Napoleonic era.