Battle of Friedland

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Battle of Friedland
Part of the War of the Fourth Coalition
Napoleon friedland.jpg
Napoleon at the Battle of Friedland (1807). The Emperor is depicted giving instructions to general Nicolas Oudinot. Between them is depicted general Etienne de Nansouty and behind the Emperor, on his right is marshal Michel Ney, duke of Elchingen.
Date June 14, 1807
Location Friedland, Prussia
Result Decisive French victory
Belligerents
France French Empire Russia Russian Empire
Commanders and leaders
France Napoleon I
France Jean Lannes
Russia Levin August, Count von Bennigsen
Strength
66,000
118 cannon[1]
84,000
120 cannon[1]
Casualties and losses
8,000 killed and wounded[2] 30,000[2]-40.000[3] killed, wounded, and captured
Battle of Friedland - 14 June 1807
Map of the battle
Charge of the French Cuirassiers at Friedland- by Meissonier on 14 June 1807
French 4th Hussar at the Battle of Friedland. "Vive l'Empereur!" by Édouard Detaille, 1891.
Charge of the Russian Leib Guard cavalry (right) against French cuirassiers (left).

The Battle of Friedland (June 14, 1807) saw Napoleon I's French army decisively defeat Count von Bennigsen's Russian army about twenty-seven miles (43 km) southeast of Königsberg. The site of Friedland, in the Russian Kaliningrad Oblast since 1945, received the new name of Pravdinsk in that year.

Friedland effectively ended the War of the Fourth Coalition (1806–1807) against Napoleon. After nearly twenty-three hours of fighting, the French took control of the battlefield and the Russian army retreated chaotically over the Łyna River, in which many soldiers drowned while trying to escape.

On July 7, 1807, Russia and France signed the first of the Treaties of Tilsit, which made the two nations allies after two years of war. France signed a separate treaty with Prussia two days later to ostracize her from the main negotiations. The public terms of Tilsit mentioned the warm feelings between Napoleon and Alexander I of Russia, but the secret terms addressed more substantial issues: France permitted Russia to do as it wished with the Ottoman Empire in return for France gaining the Dalmatian coast and the Ionian Islands; Russia gained a free hand in Finland to force Sweden out of the coalition against Napoleon; and Alexander also agreed to join the Continental System if the war with Britain did not end soon.[4] Under the terms of the second treaty France ensured the humiliation of Prussia. All Prussian territory west of the Elbe River became the new Kingdom of Westphalia, with Napoleon's own brother, Jérôme as its future King.

Historians traditionally regard Tilsit as the height of Napoleon's empire.[5]

Prelude[edit]

Prior to Friedland, Europe had become embroiled in the War of the Third Coalition in 1805. Following the French victory at the Battle of Austerlitz (December 2, 1805), Prussia went to war in 1806 to recover her position as the pre-eminent power of Central Europe.

The Prussian Campaign[edit]

Franco-Prussian tensions gradually increased after Austerlitz. Napoleon insisted that Prussia should join his economic blockade of Great Britain. This adversely affected the German merchant class. Napoleon ordered a raid to seize a subversive, anti-Napoleonic bookseller named Johann Philipp Palm, and made a final attempt to secure terms with Britain by offering her Hanover, which infuriated Prussia.[6] The Prussians began to mobilize on August 9, 1806 and issued an ultimatum on August 26: they required French troops to withdraw to the west bank of the Rhine by October 8 on pain of war between the two nations.[7]

Napoleon aimed to win the war by destroying the Prussian armies before the Russians could arrive.[7] 180,000 French troops began to cross the Franconian forest on October 2, 1806, deployed in a bataillon-carré (square-battalion) system designed to meet threats from any possible direction.[8] On October 14 the French won decisively at the large double-battle of Jena-Auerstedt. A famous pursuit followed, and by the end of the campaign the Prussians had lost 25,000 killed and wounded, 140,000 prisoners, and more than 2,000 cannon.[9] A few Prussian units managed to cross the Oder River into Poland, but Prussia lost the vast majority of its army. Russia now had to face France alone. By November 18 French forces under Louis Nicolas Davout had covered half the distance to Warsaw, Augereau's men had neared Bromberg, and Jérôme Bonaparte's troops had reached the approaches of Kalisz.[10]

Eylau[edit]

Main article: Battle of Eylau

When the French arrived in Poland the local people hailed them as liberators.[11] The Russian general Bennigsen worried that French forces might cut him off from Buxhoevden's army, so he abandoned Warsaw and retreated to the right bank of the Vistula. On November 28, 1806, French troops under Murat entered Warsaw. The French pursued the fleeing Russians and a significant battle developed around Pułtusk on December 26. The result remained in doubt, but Bennigsen wrote to the Tsar that he had defeated 60,000 French troops, and as a result he gained overall command of the Russian armies in Poland. At this point, Marshal Ney began to extend his forces to procure food supplies. Bennigsen noticed a good opportunity to strike at an isolated French corps, but he abandoned his plans once he realized Napoléon's maneuvers intended to trap his army.[12] The Russians withdrew towards Allenstein, and later to Eylau.

On February 7 the Russians fought Soult's corps for possession of Eylau. Daybreak on February 8 saw 44,500 French troops on the field against 67,000 Russians.[12] Napoleon hoped to pin Bennigsen's army long enough to allow Ney's and Davout's troops to outflank the Russians. A fierce struggle ensued, made worse by a blinding snowstorm on the battlefield. The French found themselves in dire straits until a massed cavalry charge, made by 10,700 troopers formed in 80 squadrons,[13] relieved the pressure on the center. Davout's arrival meant the attack on the Russian left could commence, but the assault was blunted when a Prussian force under Lestoq suddenly appeared on the battlefield and, with Russian help, threw the French back. Ney came too late to effect any meaningful decision, so Bennigsen retreated. Casualties at this indecisive battle were horrific, perhaps 25,000 on each side.[14] More importantly, however, the lack of a decisive victory by either side meant that the war would go on.

Heilsberg[edit]

Main article: Battle of Heilsberg

The Russian army, under General Bennigsen, held strong defensive positions in the town of Heilsberg on the Alle. The French army, under Marshals Murat and Lannes, attacked on June 10. Bennigsen repelled several attacks, resulting in huge French casualties, but had to withdraw towards Friedland the following day.

The battle[edit]

The Russian forces under General Golitsyn had driven off the French cavalry outposts from Friedland on June 13, and Bennigsen's main body began to occupy the town at night. The army of Napoleon marched on Friedland, but remained dispersed on its various march routes, and the first stage of the engagement became a purely situational battle. Knowing that Napoleon was within supporting distance with at least three corps, Lannes sent aides galloping off with messages for help and waged an expert delaying action to fix Benningsen in place. With never more than 26,000 men, Lannes forced Benningsen to commit progressively more troops across the Alle to defeat him. Showing a bold front, and shifting troops where needed to stop Russian advances, engaged the Russians first in the Sortlack Wood and in front of Posthenen (2.30-3 A.M. on the 14th), Lannes held Benningsen in place until the French had massed 80,000 troops on the left bank of the river. Both sides now used their cavalry freely to cover the formation of lines of battle, and a race between the rival squadrons for the possession of Heinrichsdorf ended in favor of the French under Grouchy and Nansouty. Benningsen was trapped and had to fight. Having thrown all of his pontoon bridges at or near the bottleneck of the village of Friedland, Benningsen had unwittingly trapped his troops on the west bank.

In the meantime Lannes fought hard to hold Bennigsen. Napoleon feared that the Russians meant to evade him again, but by 6 a.m. Bennigsen had nearly 50,000 men across the river and forming up west of Friedland. His infantry, organized in two lines, extended between the Heinrichsdorf-Friedland road and the upper bends of the river along with the artillery. Beyond the right of the infantry, cavalry and Cossacks extended the line to the wood northeast of Heinrichsdorf. Small bodies of Cossacks penetrated even to Schwonau. The left wing also had some cavalry and, beyond the Alle river, batteries came into action to cover it. A heavy and indecisive fire-fight raged in the Sortlack Wood between the Russian skirmishers and some of Lannes's troops.

The head of Mortier's (French and Polish) corps appeared at Heinrichsdorf and drove the Cossacks out of Schwonau. Lannes held his own, and by noon Napoleon arrived with 40,000 French troops at the scene of the battle. Napoleon gave brief orders: Ney's corps would take the line between Postlienen and the Sortlack Wood, Lannes closing on his left, to form the centre, Mortier at Heinrichsdorf the left wing. I Corps under General Victor and the Imperial Guard were placed in reserve behind Posthenen. Cavalry masses were collected at Heinrichsdorf. The main attack was to be delivered against the Russian left, which Napoleon saw at once to be cramped in the narrow tongue of land between the river and the Posthenen mill-stream. Three cavalry divisions were added to the general reserve.

The course of the previous operations meant that both armies still had large detachments out towards Königsberg. The emperor spent the afternoon in forming up the newly arrived masses, the deployment being covered by an artillery bombardment. At 5 o'clock all was ready, and Ney, preceded by a heavy artillery fire, rapidly carried the Sortlack Wood. The attack was pushed on toward the Alle. Marshal Ney's right-hand division under Marchand drove part of the Russian left into the river at Sortlack, while Bisson's division advanced on the left. A furious charge by Russian cavalry into the gap between Marchand and Bisson was repulsed by the dragoon division of Latour-Maubourg.

Soon the Russians found themselves huddled together in the bends of the Alle, an easy target for the guns of Ney and of the reserve. Ney's attack indeed came eventually to a standstill; Bennigsen's reserve cavalry charged with great effect and drove him back in disorder. As at Eylau, the approach of night seemed to preclude a decisive success, but in June and on firm ground the old mobility of the French reasserted its value. The infantry division of Dupont advanced rapidly from Posthenen, the cavalry divisions drove back the Russian squadrons into the now congested masses of infantry on the river bank, and finally the artillery general Sénarmont advanced a mass of guns to case-shot range.

The terrible effect of the close range artillery saw the Russian defence collapsing within minutes, as canister decimated the ranks. Ney's exhausted infantry succeeded in pursuing the broken regiments of Bennigsen's left into the streets of Friedland. Lannes and Mortier had meanwhile held the Russian centre and right on its ground, and their artillery had inflicted severe losses. When Friedland itself was seen to be on fire, the two marshals launched their infantry attack. Fresh French troops approached the battlefield. Dupont distinguished himself for the second time by fording the mill-stream and assailing the left flank of the Russian centre. This offered stubborn resistance, but the French steadily forced the line backwards, and the battle was soon over.

The Russians incurred very heavy losses in retreating over the river at Friedland; many soldiers drowned. Farther north the still unbroken troops of the right wing drew off by the Allenburg road; the French cavalry of the left wing, though ordered to pursue, remained, for some reason, inactive. French casualties approximated 8,000, while the Russians suffered nearly 20,000 in dead and wounded.

Results[edit]

The thorough destruction of Bennigsen's army persuaded Alexander I of Russia to seek peace terms five days after the battle. The following negotiations led to the Treaty of Tilsit in July, spelling the end of the War of the Fourth Coalition.

References[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b Chandler, D. Dictionary of the Napoleonic wars. Wordsworth editions, 1999, p. 161.
  2. ^ a b Chandler 1995 p. 582.
  3. ^ Osprey - Essential Histories 003 -The Napoleonic Wars -The Rise of the Emperor 1805-1807 p 78
  4. ^ Chandler 1995 p. 588
  5. ^ Chandler 1995 p. 585. Bourrienne, a French diplomat and formerly Napoleon's secretary, wrote, "The interview at Tilsit is one of the culminating points of modern history, and the waters of the Niemen reflected the image of Napoleon at the height of his glory."
  6. ^ McLynn, p. 354
  7. ^ a b McLynn p. 355
  8. ^ McLynn p. 356
  9. ^ Chandler 1995 p. 502
  10. ^ Chandler 1995 p. 515
  11. ^ Todd Fisher and Gregory Fremont-Barnes, The Napoleonic Wars: The Rise and Fall of an Empire. p. 76
  12. ^ a b Fisher & Fremont-Barnes p. 77
  13. ^ Fisher & Fremont-Barnes p. 83. 10,700 represents the paper strength of French cavalry at Eylau. It seems very unlikely, however, that all of these squadrons fought at full strength. History may never ascertain the real number of cavalrymen that charged.
  14. ^ Fisher & Fremont-Barnes p. 84. Debate continues regarding the casualties at Eylau. Some historians, such as Chandler, put the figures at 25,000 French and 15,000 Russian while others equate the two around either 15,000 or 25,000.

Coordinates: 54°27′N 21°01′E / 54.450°N 21.017°E / 54.450; 21.017