The battle of Eylau
February 7-8, 1807
The Battle of Eylau or Battle of Preussisch-Eylau (February 7–8, 1807) was a bloody and inconclusive battle between Napoléon’s Grande Armée and a mostly Russian army under General Bennigsen near the town of Preußisch Eylau in East Prussia.
Eylau was the first serious check to the French Grande Armée, which in the previous two campaigning seasons had carried all before it, demolishing the armies of the established great powers of Europe, particularly at the battles of Ulm, Austerlitz, and Jena-Auerstedt.
With the Prussian army reduced to a handful of harried fugitives after Jena-Auerstedt, Napoléon occupied the major cities of Germany and marched on east in pursuit of the remaining forces opposed to him: largely Russians under the command of the frail 75-year-old Marshal Mikhail Kamensky. Kamensky was unwilling to risk battle, and continued to retreat, leaving the Grande Armée free to enter Poland almost unopposed. After a series of inconclusive encounters, Napoléon’s troops took up winter quarters in Poland to recuperate after a victorious but exhausting campaign.
In January 1807 the Russian forces, now under the command of Bennigsen, attempted to surprise the isolated French I Corps under Marshal Bernadotte. With his customary inventiveness, Napoléon saw an opportunity to turn the situation to his own advantage, instructing Bernadotte to withdraw before Bennigsen’s forces, and secretly maneuvering with the balance of the Grande Armée to cut off the Russian retreat. The French plans fell into Russian hands however, and Bennigsen was just able to retreat and avoid the trap.
By early February the two armies were once again in close proximity and the Russians turned at bay near Eylau. During the pursuit, perhaps influenced by the dreadful state of the Polish roads, the savage winter weather and the relative ease with which his forces had dealt with Prussia, Napoléon had allowed the Grande Armée to become more spread out than was his custom. In contrast, Bennigsen’s forces were already concentrated.
Marshal Soult’s corps and Marshal Murat’s cavalry were the first French formations to reach Eylau at about 14:00 on the 7th. During the afternoon they were reinforced by Marshal Augereau’s corps and the Imperial Guard, making up about 45,000 soldiers in all. Bennigsen had 67,000 Russian troops with 460 guns already assembled (the French had only 200). The Russians could expect to be reinforced by Anton Wilhelm von L’Estocq’s detachment of 9,000 Prussians; the French by Marshal Davout’s depleted III Corps — proud victors of Auerstedt but now only 15,000 strong — and Marshal Ney’s 14,000-strong VI Corps, which was shadowing the Prussians. Bernadotte’s I Corps was too far distant to take part.
The battle began when French forces advanced to occupy the town of Eylau. Authorities differ on the reasons. Napoléon later claimed that this was on his orders; that the advance had the dual aims of pinning the Russian force to prevent them retreating yet again, and providing his soldiers with at least some shelter against the terrible cold. Other surviving evidence however, strongly suggests that the advance was unplanned and occurred as the result of an undisciplined skirmish which Marshals Soult and Murat should have acted to quell but did not. Whether or not Napoléon and his generals had in advance the consideration of securing the town in order to provide the soldiers with a shelter for the freezing night, the soldiers may have taken action on their own initiative to secure such a shelter. According to Captain Marbot the Emperor told Marshal Augereau that he disliked night fighting, that he wanted to wait until the morning so that he could count on Davout’s Corps to come up on the right wing and Ney’s on the left, and that the high ground before Eylau was a good, easily defendable position on which to wait for reinforcements.
Whatever the cause of the fighting on the first day, it rapidly escalated into a large and bitterly fought engagement, continuing well after night had fallen and resulting in about 4,000 casualties to each side before Bennigsen ordered the Russians to retreat a short distance. Despite their possession of the town most of the French spent the night in the open, as did all of the Russians. Both sides did without food – the Russians because of their habitual disorganisation, the French because of problems with the roads, the weather, and the crush of troops hurrying towards the battle.
Dawn brought light but little warmth and no great improvement in visibility: the heavy snowstorms continued throughout the day. The opposing forces occupied two parallel ridges, and shortly after 08:00 an artillery duel commenced, the French having the best of it because of their more dispersed locations. Left without the manpower to develop any better plan, Napoléon opened the second day’s infantry fighting with a frontal attack by Soult’s IV Corps, supported by as much artillery as could be assembled. Though sure to be expensive, this was calculated to delay the Russian attack until Davout’s corps had time to arrive on the right.
In reply, Bennigsen launched a heavy attack on the French left, which soon forced the outnumbered Soult back, and a series of cavalry actions against the first of Davout’s troops, who were beginning to arrive on the extreme right. With an early defeat distinctly possible, Napoléon had little choice but to employ his major reserve force, Augereau’s VII Corps, adding St Hilaire’s division to it and flinging it into the Russian left with the intention of allowing Davout to deploy, and relieving the pressure on the opposite wing.
Augereau was very ill, having had to be helped onto his horse, and perhaps for this reason employed a complex formation that soon became hopelessly lost in the snow. VII Corps veered off line and advanced straight into the Russian centre, coming under the fire of the blinded French artillery, and then directly in front of a massive 70-gun Russian battery. Meanwhile, St Hilaire’s division, advancing in the proper direction, was unable to have much effect.
Augereau’s corps was almost wiped out. Bennigsen took full advantage; falling on St Hilaire’s division with more cavalry, and bringing up his reserve infantry to attack the devastated French centre. Augereau and the three or four thousand survivors fell back on Eylau, where they were attacked by about 5,000 Russian infantry. At one point Napoléon himself, using the church tower as a command post, was nearly captured but members of his personal staff held the Russians off for just long enough to allow the brigades of the Guard to come up.
With his centre almost broken, Napoléon resorted to ordering a frontal charge by Murat’s 11,000-strong cavalry reserve — aside from the Guard, the last unbloodied body of troops remaining to the French.
Davout’s corps was now in position and began to exert heavy pressure on the Russian left. Despite the disarray of the Russian centre, Napoléon declined to follow up Murat’s charge by advancing with the Guard. Such a move may have won the battle, but Napoléon was well aware that 9,000 Prussians under L’Estocq were still unaccounted for, and judged it wise to retain the Guard in reserve. Through the afternoon, Soult, Augerau, and Murat managed to hold their ground while Davout, assisted by St Hilaire, gradually bent the Russian left back further and further. By 15:30 it seemed that the Russian cohesion would soon break.
Meanwhile L’Estocq’s small Prussian force had approached and passed behind the Russian position, gathering strength in doing so by collecting Russian stragglers and adding them to the 9,000 Prussian troops. At 16:00 L’Estocq fell on Davout’s exposed flank, and the heartened Russians soon launched a fresh attack on the opposite wing. Over the next three hours Davout was forced back towards his original position and once again it seemed that Napoléon would be defeated unless more help could arrive.
For unexplained reasons, the Emperor had failed to recall Marshal Ney the previous evening, and only sent a messenger at 08:00 on the morning of the 8th. Although within marching distance of the battle, the heavy snow had muffled the sound of gunfire and Ney was completely unaware of events until the messenger reached him around 14:00. The leading division of Ney’s corps reached the battlefield around 19:00 and immediately swept forward into the Russian right. Bitter fighting continued until 22:00, at which point both sides drew off a little. At 23:00, Bennigsen decided to withdraw and, covered by the Cossacks, the Russians silently began to leave. The exhausted French did not even notice until 03:00 and were in no condition to consider a pursuit.
After 14 hours of continuous battle, there was still no result but enormous loss of life. Authorities differ greatly, but a reasonable estimate of Russian casualties is about 15,000, the French somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 (some sources state as many as 25,000 casualties on both sides). The Russians left 3,000 prisoners for the French. The French had gained possession of the battlefield — nothing but a vast expanse of bloodstained snow and frozen corpses — but they had suffered enormous losses and failed to destroy the Russian army.
It was left to Marshal Ney to sum up. Riding over the fields of Eylau the following morning, Ney said, Quel massacre! Et sans résultat – “What a massacre! And for no outcome.”
Eylau was not the decisive victory characteristic of Napoleon’s earlier campaigns, prolonging the war with Russia until the Battle of Friedland forced Tsar Alexander I to the peace table.