Napoleon Watching The Battle Of Friedland 1807
A major engagement between French forces under Napoleon and the Russian army under General Levin Bennigsen Friedland was the decisive battle of the campaign of 1807. Following the bloody stalemate at Eylau in February, the Russian and French armies spent the spring recuperating and preparing for a new round of fighting. The Russians launched their offensive on 5 June, threatening Marshal Michel Ney’s corps around Guttstädt. However, the Russian attack was poorly executed, allowing Ney to make a fighting retreat to the Passarge River. Napoleon quickly concentrated his forces at Deppen on the Passarge and counterattacked on 7 June, driving the Russians out of Guttstädt. Three days later, the French attacked the Russian fortified camp at Heilsberg and suffered heavy casualties. However, Bennigsen feared a flanking maneuver by Napoleon and ordered further retreat toward the Russian frontier.
Late on the afternoon of 13 June, the Russian advance guard approached Friedland and found it already occupied by the advance guard of Marshal Jean Lannes’s corps. After a cavalry skirmish, the Russians carried the town and established a cavalry screen on the left bank of the river Alle. The French prisoners indicated that only Lannes’s advance guard was some 2 miles from Friedland waiting for the rest of V Corps to arrive. The leading units of the main Russian army arrived after 8:00 P. M., and Bennigsen moved General Dmitry Dokhturov’s 7th and 8th Divisions to the left bank to support the Russian Imperial Guard and cavalry already deployed there. During the night, the rest of the army concentrated on the right bank. Bennigsen initially did not intend to give battle around Friedland but wanted to secure his march northward to Wehlau, whence he planned to attack Napoleon’s flank and rear if the French advanced to Königsberg.
Bennigsen was exhausted and in poor health, so on the evening of 13 June he left the army to spend the night in a town house in Friedland. He had barely received any rest when, at 11:00 P. M., he was informed that General Nicolas Oudinot’s troops were deployed near Postehnen. Concerned about his positions, Bennigsen moved additional troops across the river and took up positions near the forest of Sortlach. By late evening there were some 25,000 Russians on the left bank of the Alle. Furthermore, that same evening two pontoon bridges were constructed, and additional forces moved to the left bank to secure the flanks. Ataman Matvei Platov’s Cossacks, supported by the Preobrazhensky Guard, the cavalry of the Guard, Finnish Dragoons, and Oliovopol Hussars, were dispatched northward to seize crossing sites at Allenburg and on the Pregel River. Bennigsen moved most of his cavalry to the left flank and posted Prince Peter Bagration with his advance guard on the left. Thus, the Russian troops were deployed in a half-circle around Friedland. This position was extremely unfavorable for several reasons. First, a deep ravine, Muhlen Teich, in the center divided the Russian forces into two parts and complicated communications between them. Second, the troops were deployed on marshy terrain with their backs to the Alle. In case of defeat, the Russians could escape only through the narrow streets and across one small wooden bridge and three pontoon bridges at Friedland. No attempt was made to reconnoiter the river for fords or to examine the terrain on the flanks.
Late on the night of 13 June, Lannes learned about the Russian occupation of Friedland. He instructed Oudinot to reconnoiter the Russian positions and to recapture the town if he found himself faced only by small Russian detachments. Oudinot reached Postehnen, where he encountered a Russian cavalry screen and observed the enemy main columns in the distance. As he was reading Oudinot’s report, Lannes also received instructions from Napoleon to prevent Bennigsen from crossing the Alle and was told that General Emmanuel marquis de Grouchy was en route with his dragoon division to reinforce V Corps for this mission. Around midnight, Lannes received reinforcements, increasing his forces to some 13,000 men. He deployed these troops between Postehnen and Heinrichsdorf, with the light cavalry deployed on the right flank and Grouchy’s dragoons kept in reserve near Postehnen.
Some time after 2:00 A. M., Oudinot, supported by General François Ruffin’s troops, reached Postehnen and engaged the Russian outposts in the woods of Sortlach. The fighting rapidly grew intense, and an hour later Grouchy arrived with his cavalry; he was initially driven back by the numerically superior Russian cavalry, but new French reinforcements (Dutch cavalry of General Adolphe Mortier’s corps) arrived and forced the Russians back. Simultaneously, General Andrey Gorchakov’s troops advanced toward Heinrichsdorf, forcing Lannes to shift part of his cavalry to the right flank. The fighting continued for the next three hours, in the course of which Heinrichsdorf changed hands several times.
On the Russian left flank, Bagration arrived at Sortlach shortly after 3:00 A. M. and deployed his infantry in two lines. In addition, he deployed most of his Jäger regiments (some 3,000 men) as skirmishers in the woods of Sortlach; two battalions, five squadrons, and four guns were placed behind them as reserves and another two battalions, five squadrons, and four guns were placed at Sortlach. As the French attacked, the fighting on the left flank was particularly violent as the French tirailleurs (skirmishers) and Bagration’s Jäger regiments stubbornly contested the ground in the woods. Bagration launched a series of attacks against Oudinot, but French grenadiers repulsed him each time. The 9th Hussars and the Saxon cavalry also counterattacked but suffered heavy losses.
Lannes skillfully used the terrain and protected his troops with a dense screen of skirmishers in the woods. He had mobile columns moving between the lines to create the illusion of arriving reinforcements. He was already told that Napoleon was hurrying with the rest of the army, so he had to pin down Bennigsen for as long as possible. Bennigsen ordered more troops to cross the Alle to support forces already there. The Russian troops crossed the river and, by 9:00 A. M., Bennigsen had most of his cavalry deployed on the right flank, supported by the 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, and 8th Divisions; Gorchakov commanded these forces. On the left flank, the 1st and 2nd Divisions reinforced Bagration. The 14th Division and the Imperial Guard were kept in reserve.
Around 7:00 A. M. Bagration launched another assault. He spread General Nikolay Rayevsky’s 20th Jägers in a skirmish line and arranged the Life Guard Jäger Regiment, with the Rostov Musketeers in reserve, in two columns behind them. A battalion of the 20th Jägers, spearheaded the attack. In hand-to-hand combat, the Life Guard Jägers captured three officers and forty-eight men, but lost two officers and six men themselves. As the French counterattacked, Bagration committed the Moscow Grenadiers, the Pskov Musketeers, and the Alexandria Hussars and deployed Colonel Aleksey Ermolov’s horse artillery battery. The 3rd and 7th Jäger Regiments were ordered to hold their ground in the center while the 5th Jägers remained at Sortlach. Bagration also instructed Rayevsky to disengage the 20th and Life Guard Jägers and rally them in the valley behind the forest. The Jägers slowly retreated, pursued by the French, who stopped on the edge of the woods and continued harassing the Russian lines.
At the same time, Oudinot moved part of his division to seize Sortlach on Bagration’s left, but he was beaten back by the 5th Jäger Regiment. Simultaneously, Rayevsky rallied his troops (20th Jägers and Life Guard Jägers) on the plain behind the Sortlach woods. The French cavalry soon charged him there, but a squadron of the Life Guard Horse Regiment drove them back. Early in the morning, Bagration called up General Karl Baggovut’s detachment. He wanted to make a decisive attack to clear and secure the woods, where Oudinot’s grenadiers had found good positions from which to harass Bagration’s troops. Bagration deployed the 26th Jägers in line, followed by the 4th and 25th Jägers in column. The Russians overwhelmed Oudinot’s troops and drove them out of the Sortlach. To secure his position in the forest, Bagration reinforced Baggovut with a battalion of Olonetsk militia.
Hearing of this success, Bennigsen ordered the rest of his army to adjust the line with the front held by Bagration’s troops. As a result, the Russians advanced 1,000 paces. At the same time, several major cavalry actions took place around Heinrichsdorf, where regular cavalry under General Fedor Uvarov and the Cossacks threatened to envelop the French flank. However, the cavalry of I and VI Corps arrived in time to repulse the Russians and secure the flank. Shortly after 9:00 A. M., Mortier’s corps also arrived on the battlefield near Heinrichsdorf in time to counter a new Russian attack.
It was an important moment in the battle. Unable to defeat Lannes’s corps, Bennigsen could have recalled his army and safely retreated across the Alle before Napoleon’s entire army arrived. However, he decided to remain at Friedland, though he took no precautions to protect his exposed army.
The Russian troops, already exhausted by the previous days’ marches and the early fighting, lapsed into a brief lull between 2:00 and 5:00 P. M. Both sides exchanged artillery fire, but no major actions took place. Bagration, meantime, met Bennigsen in Friedland and turned his attention to the arrival of the French corps. He urged Bennigsen to take measures to strengthen the positions around Friedland. Furthermore, Bagration anticipated that Napoleon would direct a main attack against his flank, so he requested more reinforcements; his appeals were all turned down. Finally, shortly after 4:00 P. M., Bennigsen observed the French corps taking up new positions from which to attack and realized the danger to his exposed army. He ordered a retreat, but Gorchakov argued it was better to defend the current positions until night. Bagration disagreed with this suggestion and began preparing his troops to withdraw to Friedland.
Napoleon, meanwhile, was rapidly concentrating his corps at Friedland. He personally arrived near the town shortly before noon, declaring to his troops “Today is a happy day-it is the anniversary of Marengo” (Chandler 1966, 577). Examining the Russian positions, he realized that he had a chance of destroying the Russian army in a single battle. He urged Ney, General Claude Victor, and the Imperial Guard to accelerate their march to the battlefield as he prepared new dispositions for the battle. He rested his troops in the woods of Sortlach and made sure they had enough ammunition. He then placed Victor’s troops and part of the cavalry in reserve near Postehnen. On the left flank, Mortier’s corps, supported by most of the French cavalry, defended Heinrichsdorf and the road to Königsberg. However, Mortier was instructed not to advance, as the movement would be by the French right flank, pivoting on the left. Napoleon had two corps designed for this flanking attack. Ney was ordered to move to the right flank, passing Postehnen toward the woods of Sortlach. Lannes would form the center in front of Postehnen, while Oudinot’s troops were to turn to the left in order to draw upon themselves the attention of the enemy. Napoleon’s planned maneuver was aimed at destroying the bridges at Friedland and cutting the Russian line of retreat.
At 5:30 P. M. a salvo of twenty French guns signaled the renewal of battle. Ney’s corps advanced from Postehnen to the woods of Sortlach, where Bagration had posted his Jägers. After an hour of vicious fighting, Bagration had to withdraw his exhausted Jägers, allowing the French to occupy the woods and open fire on his main forces. Ney organized his troops in columns in three broad clearings in the forest; General Jean Gabriel Marchand’s division was on the right, General Baptiste Bisson on the left with the cavalry of General Marie- Charles Latour-Maubourg following them behind. The superior French forces drove Bagration’s Jägers out of the woods and carried Sortlach, which was partly abandoned on Bagration’s orders. As the French advanced, several Russian batteries on the right bank opened fire at them, while Bagration deployed his troops in new positions. He then moved the Life Guard Ismailovsk and Semeyonovsk Regiments forward.
The advancing French came under fire from Bagration’s troops and from the batteries on the opposite bank. General Alexandre Antoine Senarmont, chief of artillery of Victor’s corps, later recalled that the Russian batteries, deployed on the opposite side of the Alle, fired on the French flanks and decimated them. Bagration initially counterattacked with the Life Guard Horse Regiment and then moved the Pavlovsk and St. Petersburg Grenadier Regiments forward. The Russians drove the French columns back and captured the eagle of the 69th Line in the process. Ney’s troops fell back in confusion but were quickly rallied when General Pierre Dupont moved his division with the cavalry under generals Armand Lahoussaye and Antoine Auguste Durosnel closely behind. The Russian cavalry continued its attack but came under fire from Dupont’s batteries and was counterattacked by Latour-Maubourg’s cavalry. As the Russians fell back, Dupont changed the direction of his troops to the right and covered the gap on Ney’s left.
Simultaneously, Senarmont moved his twelve guns forward and organized two companies of fifteen guns, with six pieces in reserve, and placed them on both flanks of Dupont’s division. As the French advanced, Senarmont outpaced the infantry and opened fire on Bagration’s troops from close range. The fire was very effective because the Russians were massed in a narrow defile between the Muhlen Teich and the Alle. Realizing the danger of these batteries, Bagration directed his artillery against them. Senarmont disregarded the Russian artillery and concentrated his fire on the enemy infantry. His guns initially fired at 600 paces, then moved to 300 paces; Senarmont’s guns operated with remarkable intensity, firing over 3,000 rounds into the Russian troops. Bagration sent his cavalry to destroy the French guns, but Senarmont calmly awaited their advance before ordering canister fire, which in the event literally mowed down the enemy ranks. The Russians then attacked with the Life Guard Izmailovsk and Pavlovsk Grenadier Regiments, but the French fire virtually wiped out these regiments as well; the third battalion of the Izmailovsk Regiment lost some 400 men out of 520. Realizing the utter futility of his orders, Bagration finally fell back to Friedland, where he unsuccessfully attempted to delay the French advance. By 8:00 P. M. Bagration had withdrawn into Friedland and had the houses in the southern suburbs set on fire to slow down the French. At the same time, as he approached the river, Bagration found the bridges had already been set ablaze by the Russians.
On the Russian right flank, Gorchakov made a desperate assault with his four divisions on Lannes and Mortier. The French contained General Dmitry Golitsyn’s efforts with the support of the cavalry of the Imperial Guard. However, senior French commanders did not exploit their numerical superiority in cavalry (forty squadrons against twenty-five) and allowed the Russians to retreat. The French artillery on the left bank of the Muhlen Teich soon engaged Gorchakov’s forces in flank. The arrival of Gorchakov’s troops in the crowded streets of Friedland created havoc at the bridges, which were already on fire. Bagration and Gorchakov dispatched numerous officers to look for fords along the river, which were quickly found.
The Battle of Friedland was the final engagement of a long campaign. The Russian army had suffered a crushing defeat and could not field another army. The casualties were staggering, as the Russians lost some 20,000 killed and wounded; the French lost 7,000-8,000. Bennigsen had undertaken some effective operations in the early months of 1807, but he committed a fatal blunder at Friedland. Furthermore, the Russian high command played virtually no role in the battle, since Bennigsen was in poor health, his quartermaster general, Fadey Steingeldt, and his duty general, Ivan Essen, were wounded and unavailable for duty, and the Russian headquarters were full of incompetent officers and observers.
Friedland was a decisive military and diplomatic victory for Napoleon. It proved the superiority of French military organization: A single corps had repulsed attacks of the Russian army and allowed the rest of the French to concentrate for a counterattack. It put an end to the Fourth Coalition and led to rapprochement between Russia and France. The meeting between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander at Tilsit and the subsequent treaty of alliance was a direct result of this victory. In addition, Napoleon spread his sphere of influence to the territory between the Oder and the Niemen rivers and found eager supporters in Poland.
References and further reading Both, Carl von. 1807. Relation de la bataille de Friedland le 14 juin 1807. Berlin: Schropp. Chandler, David G. 1995. The Campaigns of Napoleon. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Derode, M. 1839. Nouvelle relation de la bataille de Friedland. Paris: Anselin et Laguionie. Grenier, E. 1911. Etude sur 1807: Manoeuvres d’Eylau et Friedland. Paris: Lavauzelle. Horne, Alistair. 1979. Napoleon, Master of Europe: 1805-1807. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson. Lettow-Vorbeck, Oscar von. 1896. Der krieg von 1806 und 1807. Berlin: Mittler und Sohn. Michel, Lt. Col. 1909. Etude sur la période du 5 au 14 juin de la campagne de 1807. Paris: Berger-Levrault. Mikhailovsky-Danilevsky, Alexander. 1846. Opisanie vtoroi voini Imperatora Aleksandra s Napoleonom v 1806-1807 godakh [Description of the Second War of the Emperor Alexander against Napoleon in 1806-1807]. St. Petersburg: N. p. Petre, F. Loraine. 2001. Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland, 1806-07. London: Greenhill. Summerville, Christopher. 2005. Napoleon’s Polish Gamble: Eylau and Friedland, 1807. London: Leo Cooper.