The battle of Jena
October 14, 1806
The twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt (older name: Auerstädt) were fought on October 14, 1806 on the plateau west of the river Saale in today’s Germany, between the forces of Napoleon I of France and Frederick William III of Prussia. The decisive defeat suffered by the Prussian army a mere nineteen days after its mobilization resulted in Prussia’s elimination from the fourth anti-French coalition until the liberation war of 1813.
Both armies were split into separate parts. The Prussian king had three forces:
- 55,000 men under the Duke of Brunswick
- 38,000 under Prince Hohenlohe
- 15,000 under General von Ruchel.
Napoleon’s main force at Jena consisted of about 96,000 men in total:
- Soult’s IV Corps
- Lannes’V Corps
- Ney’s VI Corps
- Augereau’s VII Corps
- the cavalry of Murat
Further north, in the vicinity of Auerstedt, the French forces were Bernadotte’s I Corps (20,000 strong) and Davout’s III Corps (27,000).
Further north at Auerstedt, both Davout and Bernadotte received orders to come to Napoleon’s aid. Davout attempted to comply via Ekartsberg; Bernadotte, via Dornburg. Davout’s route south, however, was blocked by the Prussian main force of 55,000 men, including the Prussian King, the Duke of Brunswick and Field Marshals von Möllendorf and von Kalckreuth. A savage battle ensued. Although outnumbered two to one, Davout’s superbly trained and disciplined III Corps endured repeated attacks before eventually taking the offensive and putting the Prussians to flight. Though in sight of the battle, Bernadotte took no steps to come to Davout’s aid, for which he was later censured by Napoleon.
Battle of Jena
The battle of Jena began with the chance evening meeting of Marshal Lannes’ corps and a Prussian force of 38,000 men under Hohenlohe.
Sending for immediate reinforcements, Lannes camped near the enemy positions. Throughout the night new units moved up until French forces numbered at least 50,000. More were on the way, so Napoleon would have some 90,000 men available.
The initial French move was to push the Prussians into open ground, where the advantage of numbers would be telling, and while the resistance was strong it was eventually achieved. Hohenlohe urgently sent for assistance from Rüchel’s nearby 15,000 men and hoped to hold on until they arrived.
Meanwhile, all of the good work done by Marshals Augereau and Lannes was almost undone by the impatient Marshal Ney, who launched an unauthorized assault in the centre. The assault was not fit to the situation and both sides had problems believing that it happened. Soon Ney was in danger of being swamped by Prussian cavalry. Fortunately for Ney, Lannes, Bertrand, and massed French cavalry intervened before the trap could shut.
At 1 p.m., Napoleon ordered a general advance and within two hours the exhausted Prussians gave way, fleeing the field and trying to avoid the sabres of Marshal Murat’s horsemen. Jena cost Napoleon some 5,000 men, but the Prussians had a staggering 25,000 casualties.
Battle of Auerstedt
General Etienne Gudin’s French troops were on the move from Naumburg before 6:30 a.m. By 7 a.m. the 1st Chasseurs were stopped cold in their tracks outside of Poppel by Prussian cavalry and artillery. There was a heavy fog that had lifted just as they approached the village. Once Davout became aware of the Prussian force he ordered Gudin to deploy his force at Hassenhausen.
The Prussian commander on the field was Schmettau. His division was actually under orders to proceed down the very road that Davout was on, to block his advance in the Kösen Pass. While Schmettau’s troops were deploying to attack Hassenhausen, Blücher arrived with his cavalry and deployed on his left. Together they attacked Gudin’s troops and pushed them back to the village.
Wartensleben arrived at 8:30 a.m. with Brunswick, who ordered his infantry to the left flank and his cavalry to the right. The rest of the French cavalry arrived at 9 a.m. and was placed on Gudin’s left. General Louis Friant and the 12-pound artillery arrived at 9:30 a.m. and moved in squares on Gudin’s right. The advance of the French squares forced Blucher’s cavalry back. Seeing no other option available he ordered his cavalry to attack. At this very moment two of Wartensleben’s regiments attacked Hassenhausen.
Everything failed: three cavalry regiments were routed and the infantry fell back. At this critical point, Brunswick needed to take drastic action. Shortly before 10 a.m. he ordered a full assault on Hassenhausen. By 10 a.m. Brunswick was carried from the field mortally wounded along with Schmettau who was also badly wounded. With the loss of these two commanders the Prussian command broke down. The Prussian army was in danger of collapse.
Blücher’s infantry and the Prince of Orange, the later William I of the Netherlands, arrived about 10:30 a.m., and the King made his only decision of the day, to split Orange’s command in two, half to each flank. On the French side, Morand’s Division arrived and was sent to secure Gudin’s left. Davout could now see that the Prussians were wavering, so at 11 a.m. he ordered his infantry to counter-attack. By noon Schmettau’s center was broken and forced back over the Lissbach Stream, Blucher’s cavalry was blown, and Wartensleben was trying to reposition his troops. The Prussians realized all was now lost and the King ordered a withdrawal.
Napoleon initially did not believe that Davout’s single Corps had defeated the Prussian main body unaided, and responded to the first report by saying “Tell your Marshal he is seeing double”, a reference to Davout’s poor eyesight. As matters became clearer, however, the Emperor was unstinting in his praise. Bernadotte was severely censured and came within an ace of being dismissed on the spot — despite being within earshot of Auerstedt and within marching distance of Jena, he ignored his orders and did not fire a shot in either battle. Davout was made Duke of Auerstedt. Lannes, the hero of Jena, was not so honored, possibly because Napoleon judged it best for reasons of prestige to keep the glory for himself.
On the Prussian side, Brunswick was mortally wounded at Auerstedt, and over the next few days the remaining forces were unable to mount any serious resistance to Murat’s ruthless cavalry pursuit. Davout led his exhausted III Corps into Berlin on October 25. Hohenlohe’s force surrendered on October 28, Blücher’s on November 7. Isolated Prussian resistance remained, but Napoleon’s primary foe was now Russia, and the Battle of Eylau awaited.