The first major confrontation in the 1806 campaign between French and Prussian forces. Marshal Jean Lannes, faced by a smaller force under the command of Prince Louis Ferdinand of Hohenzollern, was given the task of taking Saalfeld. A combination of French tactical initiative and poor Prussian deployment led to the defeat of the Prussian force and to the death of Prince Louis.
Early in the Prussian campaign, Prince Louis commanded the advance guard of Frederick Louis, Prince Hohenlohe’s corps of the Prussian army and was given orders to hold Saalfeld. Lannes, conversely, had instructions to take Saalfeld, provided the enemy were discovered to be numerically inferior to his forces. Lannes duly sent out cavalry patrols to ascertain the strength of the enemy. Prince Louis had deployed his force in three lines, outside the town, but he had made little attempt to occupy the villages on his flanks. The ground was also broken up by a number of streams running in steep ravines down to the river Saale. The river itself was directly to the rear of the Prussian position. As Lannes advanced from the wooded hills to the south of Saalfeld, he was able to observe the entire enemy position. Initially he deployed in skirmish order the first of his troops to arrive on the battlefield, and they quickly advanced under the cover of the ravines. He also deployed a battalion composed entirely of the elite companies (grenadiers and voltigeurs) of his infantry to pin down the Prussians defending Saalfeld.
The French then seized the villages that flanked the Prussian line and began to issue an effective fire on the exposed lines of troops. This bombardment continued for about two hours. By now Lannes had received reinforcements and was determined to attack the Prussian right wing. Prince Louis, realizing that his line of communications was threatened, weakened his center in order to deploy troops onto a low ridge to the right of his main line, called the Sandberg. He then took the decision to launch an attack in the center against a screen of French skirmishers. The troops in the center were Saxons, and despite their bravery in attack they were repulsed by the skirmishers on their flanks and fresh French troops to their front. Having blunted the enemy advance, Lannes began an artillery bombardment before launching his own assault. French troops attacked the Sandberg, which allowed a combined infantry and cavalry assault to be delivered against the Prussian center. The four Saxon battalions there quickly broke.
In an attempt to stabilize the situation, Prince Louis led five squadrons of his own cavalry forward, in the course of which he was killed in single combat by a French sergeant of hussars. The Prussian force was now broken, and in the cavalry pursuit that followed nearly thirty guns were taken, together with 1,500 prisoners. The Prussian survivors were forced to rally 4 miles to the north of Saalfeld. The French victory began to dispel the myth of Prussian invincibility and provided a vital morale boost for the French army prior to the decisive battles to be fought at Jena and Auerstädt only days later.