AS DEFEAT LOOMS, MURAT’S CAVALRY SAVES THE DAY IN PERHAPS THE GREATEST CAVALRY CHARGE IN MILITARY HISTORY
In October of 1806, Napoleon decisively defeated the Prussians in a lightning campaign that culminated at the twin battles of Jena-Auerstedt. This campaign was in response to Prussia joining Russia, Saxony, Sweden, and Great Britain in the Fourth Coalition against Napoleon; following his defeat of Austria at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805.
Following Jena-Auerstedt, Napoleon overran much of Prussia in a blitzkrieg-like advance, destroying the remnants of the Prussian army at the Battles of Prenzlau and Lübeck. On the 25th of October, the French captured Berlin.
Continuing the campaign, Napoleon’s Grande Armee (75,000 strong) then pushed into East Prussia. Here it was opposed by a slightly larger Russian army, under General Leonty Leontyevich, Count von Bennigsen, coming to the Prussian’s aid.
As was normal practice, Napoleon’s Grande Armee marched widely dispersed; each Corps its own independent army, its movements coordinated by the Emperor’s headquarters through an efficient staff, headed by Marshal Berthier. With his army scattered in a broad net, Napoleon now attempted to cast this net over Bennigsen’s Russians.
Galloping courier were sent to all Corps commanders, ordering them to concentrate against and envelop the Russians. However, one such courier in-route to Marshal Bernadotte’s I Corps was captured by Cossacks. Aware that he was thrusting his head into a noose, Bennigsen began withdrawing away from the oncoming French. Napoleon pursued, and Bennigsen was brought to heal on the 7th of February, 1807, at the village of Eylau.
Napoleon had only four Corps on hand: Marshal Augereau’s VII Corps, Soult’s IV Corps, Murat’s Reserve Cavalry Corps; in addition to his own Imperial Guard; about 45,000 men and 200 guns. Bennisgen, on the other hand, had approximately 67,000 troops and 460 guns, with a further 9,000 Prussians under General Anton Wilhelm von L’Estocqnearby. But with Ney’s VI Corps approaching from the northwest, and Davout’s III Corps coming from the south, a total of 30,000 additional troops; Napoleon planned to pin the Russians in place with the forces he had on hand, while these late arriving corps would envelope Bennigsen’s army from both flanks. In essence, his plan was what General George Patton would later call “holding (the enemy) by the nose,” so that he could “kick them in the pants”.
The Russians and French skirmished all day on the 7th over Eylau village, at the center of the battlefield. As darkness fell, the Russians withdrew back across a shallow valley and prepared for battle the following morning. Both armies spent a miserable night on the frozen ground, snow flurries gusting sporadically. As they lay shivering in the night, Napoleon’s soldiers couldn’t know how the snow would be a source of both heartbreak and salvation for many of them on the following day.
At 8am on February 8, amidst intermittent snow flurries, the battle began in earnest; with a massive artillery duel. At 8:30am, Napoleon ordered Marshal Soult’s Corp, on the French center-left, to advance and began to “pin” the Russian right, under General Tutchkov. But Soult’s men were soon halted and pushed back to their starting position around Windmill Hill, north of Eylau village.
Meanwhile, to the south, the vanguard of Marshal Davout’s III Corps, an infantry division commanded by General Louis Friant, began to arrive opposite the Russian left. To stop their progress, Bennigsen launched a cavalry attack from his left.
To relieve the pressure on Davout’s oncoming reinforcements, and pin the Russian left in place, Napoleon at 10:30am ordered the 15,000 men of Marshal Augereau’s VII Corp, supported by St. Hilaire’s division of Soult’s Corps, to advance. Marching down into the shallow valley, the French soldiers were quickly lost from site as the snow storm gusted up to blizzard level.
However, in the blinding snow flurries, Augereau’s men lost their way. Instead of moving against the Russian left, they drifted northward, toward the Russian center and the massed 70 guns of the Russian grand battery; still engaged in a duel with the French batteries around Eylau. As they pushed up the slopes of the Russian side of the valley, Augereau’s unfortunate men walked straight into the crossfire between both side’s cannons.
The carnage was sudden and total. Grapeshot from the Russian batteries raked their front, while round-shot from their own French guns tore into their ranks from the rear. In minutes, Augereau’s VII Corps virtually ceased to exist. Of the two divisions comprising the Corps, only 3,000 returned to their starting position at the French side of the valley, of the 15,000 that had taken the field that day. Of the commanders, Augereau himself was wounded, as were both of the two division commanders (1st Division commander Jacques Desjardins being mortally wounded, dying 3 days later).
The Russians now launched an all out counter-attack with infantry and cavalry, as the survivors of the VII Corps broke and began fleeting back to their own side of the valley. Only the heroic 14th Regiment of the Line held fast. Forming square on a small hillock, they repulsed the Russian cavalry, providing cover for the survivors to escape.
Watching from Napoleon’s command post on the plateau above, as the Russian infantry masses began descending down the slopes to engulf the 14th, was Aide-de-Camp Marcellin de Marbot (whose “Memoirs of his Life and Campaigns” makes for fascinating and rousing reading to this day). In his memoirs, Marbot recounts the events:
The snow having stopped for a moment, one could see this gallant regiment almost completely surrounded by the enemy, waving its Eagle aloft to show that it still stood fast and needed help. The Emperor, touched by the devotion to duty of these brave men, decided to attempt their rescue; he told Marshal Augereau to send an officer with orders to them to quit the hillock, form a small square and withdraw towards us; while a brigade of cavalry would go to meet them and second their efforts.
…it was almost impossible to carry out the Emperor’s command because a swarm of Cossacks separated us from the 14th. It was clear that any officer sent towards the unfortunate regiment would be killed or captured before he got there. Nevertheless, an order is an order; and the marshal had to obey.
The first two messengers sent to carry the Emperor’s message never reached their goal, and their bodies were never recovered. Marbot himself was selected to make a third attempt.
Well mounted on his Arab mare, Lisset, Marbot raced down the slope and through the swarming screen of Cossacks:
…flying rather than galloping, rushed through space, leaping over the piled up bodies of men and horses, over ditches and the broken mountings of guns, as well as the half-extinguished bivouac fires. Thousands of Cossacks were scattered about the plain. The first ones to see me behaved like hunters who, having raised a hare, mark its presence by shouts of “Yours! Yours!” But none of them tried to stop me, firstly because I was going so fast, and also perhaps because each one thought I would be caught by his comrades who were further on. In this way I escaped from them all and arrived at the 14th without either I or my excellent mare having suffered a scratch.
Reaching the surrounded regiment, its position protected by a rampart of Russian dead, Marbot gave the battalion commander the Emperor’s orders. Down to a mere handful, and with the Russian foot now bearing down upon them, the officer replied:
“I can see no way of saving the regiment. Return to the Emperor and give him the farewells of the 14e Régiment de Ligne which has faithfully carried out his orders, and take him the Eagle he gave which we can no longer defend; it would be too terrible to see it fall into enemy hands during our last moments.”
Taking the Regimental Eagle, Marbot attempted to return to the French lines; only to have his horse collapse from under him, and he awoke four hours later, wounded and stripped naked! He survived, however, and continued fighting on throughout Napoleon’s campaigns.
The Russians swarmed over the 14th, which fought to the death. Moving onward across the valley floor, the Russian masses, bayonets glittering, pushed on up the slopes toward Eylau and Napoleon’s command post.
For the first time since Marengo in 1800, Napoleon looked defeat in the eye. His center had ceased to exist; and nothing stood between the oncoming Russians and his own command post, but his personal guards, and his cavalry reserve. With his center in danger of collapsing and the two flanking Corps of Marshal Ney and Davout still hours away from effective commitment, Napoleon’s battle plan appeared to have exploded in his face.
At 11am, the Russian vanguard pushed into Eylau, and to within 100 yards of Napoleon himself. Two battalions of the Guard rushed forward, battling the Russian grenadiers in the alleys and streets of Eylau. By 1130, they had pushed the Russian vanguard out of the village. But the bulk of the Russian center was still advancing, seemingly unstoppable, toward Napoleon’s position.
Summoning Joachim Murat, Napoleon turned to his cavalry commander (who was also his brother-in-law); and pointed to the oncoming Russians, said: “Will you let those men devour us”?
“Will you let these men devour us??”
Murat immediately whirled about, and galloping off to the waiting regiments of his Corps, gathered them together in one massive column; each squadron drawn up behind the other, each man knee-to-knee. 10,700 superbly mounted cavalry: 4 regiments of armored cuirassiers to the front, followed by regiments of dragoons, hussars, and chasseurs.
As they formed up, Russian musket and cannon shot whistled among them. Colonel Louis Lepic of the Grenadiers à Cheval (Horse Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard, known in the French army as “The Gods”, on account of their lofty demeanor), seeing some of his men flinching, called out with icy contempt: “Heads up, by God! Those are bullets, not turds!”
At 11:45, wielding only his riding-whip, Murat’s led his horsemen forward. Walk turned into trot, trot to canter, canter broke into gallop!
Cresting the edge of the plateau, the Russian infantry lines were greeted by the thunder of 42,800 hooves; as a torrent of French cavalry bore down upon them. The cuirassiers smashed into the staggering Russian regiments. As Captain Parquin of the Imperial Guard eloquently relates, “the brave phalanx of infantry was soon leveled to the earth like a wheat-field swept by a hurricane”!
Unchecked, the French cavalry swept down into the valley, cutting down the fleeing survivors and scattering the supporting Russian cavalry in their wake.
Breaking into two columns, the right half wheeled to the right, smashing into and routing the Russian cavalry harassing Friant’s vanguard of Davout’s Corps; before rejoining their comrades. The main thrust continued on up the slopes on the Russian side of the valley, overrunning the Russian artillery batteries that had so punished Augereau’s Corps. Sabering the gunners and spiking the guns, Murat’s cavaliers exacted a bloody revenge!
Rolling onward, the cavalry hit the second line of infantry.
As Marbot describes, “the terrible weight of this mass broke the Russian centre, upon which it charged with the sabre, and threw it into complete disorder.” Here, the swirling snow and poor visibility that had caused Augereau so much mischief worked in the French’s favor. Many Russian regiments were surprised as the French appeared out of the blizzard, and were ridden down before they could form square; and in other cases, hastily forming squares were shattered.
The charge broke through the main Russian lines, halting and reforming before the Russian reserves.
Murat’s cavalry had charged into the heart of the Russian army; and while they had torn through the first two lines, found themselves now caught between the reforming survivors of their charge and Bennigsen’s reserves of cavalry and infantry. These now began firing upon them with musketry and cannon. Murat’s men were in an untenable position, and their retreat was perilous.
Seeing their predicament, Napoleon committed his own Guard Cavalry under Marshal Bessières, to cover their withdraw.
Led by Lepic’s magnificent Grenadiers à Cheval, striking in their tall bearskin hats; and followed by the Emperor’s Guard Light Cavalry, the Chasseurs à Cheval (including the squadron of Mameluks!), these 2,000 elite cavalry plunged forward. Furiously laying about them with sword, they opened a blood-stained passage through which returned Murat’s weary horsemen.
As Murat’s retreating cavalrymen streamed past them, the Guard horsemen formed a barrier between them and the Russian reserve. The Russians advanced cautiously; and as they approached the ranks of the Guards, a Russian officer called upon them to surrender.
The charge of Murat’s cavalry at Eylau was not only a seminal moment in the battle; it was the finest moment in the history of Napoleon’s cavalry.
“Napoleon had good cause to be grateful to his cavalry arm, which now came indisputably into its own as a finely tempered and practically irresistible battle weapon”. (David Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company), p.554)
What had seemed just an hour earlier to be a Russian victory had now turned back in favor of the French. Bennigsen was stunned by the sudden reversal, and never regained the initiative.
Davout and Ney’s Corps arrived and stabilized the French line. That evening, the Russians withdrew, leaving Napoleon and the French in possession of the corpse-strewn battlefield. They stayed there at Eylau for another week, burying the dead and resting. Napoleon wrote his wife, the Empress Josephine, on February 14:
“My Dear, I am still at Eylau. The country is covered with dead and wounded. It is the worst aspect of war. It is heartbreaking and my soul is oppressed at the sight of so many victims.”
Eylau was a bloody, miserable battle; to date the costliest for Napoleon’s Grande Armee. 10,000–15,000 French and some 15,000 Russians had fallen (another 3,000 Russians were taken prisoner). It failed to decide the issues of the day; that would wait till the following summer, when both armies would meet again at Friedland.
But what the Russians had shown Napoleon and Europe at Eylau was this: that, despite the victories of Ulm, Austerlitz and Jena-Auersted, that the Grande Armee was not invincible.
For more, read http://www.battlefieldanomalies.com/eylau/index.htm here