AS DEFEAT LOOMS, MURAT’S CAVALRY SAVES THE DAY IN PERHAPS THE GREATEST CAVALRY CHARGE IN MILITARY HISTORY.
In October of 1806, the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte 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 France. This coalition was a response to Napoleon’s victory over Austria at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, which resulted in Austria withdrawing from the war.
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.
With the Prussian forces scattered, only Russia still had an army in the field to oppose him. Napoleon continued the campaign; marching the Grande Armee (75,000 strong) into East Prussia. Here he sought to bring the Russians, under General Leonty Leontyevich, Count von Bennigsen, to decisive battle.
As was normal practice, Napoleon’s Grande Armee marched widely dispersed, each Corps its own independent army. The overall movements of the Grande Armee were well coordinated by the Emperor’s headquarters through an efficient staff, headed by the talented Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier (the man who translated Napoleon’s strategic vision into coherent orders). With his army scattered in a broad net, Napoleon now attempted to cast this over and bag Bennigsen’s Russians.
Galloping couriers 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 Russian Cossacks. Thus, warned that he was thrusting his head into a noose, Bennigsen began withdrawing away from the oncoming French. Napoleon pursued, and the Russians were 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 (the men who had delivered the “one sharp blow” at Austerlitz, storming the Pratzen Heights), Murat’s Reserve Cavalry Corps, and his own matchless Imperial Guard; in all, about 45,000 men and 200 guns. Bennigsen, on the other hand, had approximately 67,000 troops and 460 guns, with a further 9,000 Prussians under General Anton Wilhelm von L’Estocq nearby. But Ney’s VI Corps was approaching the Russians from the northwest, and Davout’s III Corps was coming from the south; a total of 30,000 additional troops. Napoleon decided to pin the Russians in place with the forces he had on hand, allowing these late arriving corps to 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”.
Opposing commanders: Count Von Bennigsen (L), commanded the Russian forces opposing the French at Eylau. Following the battle, he was decorated by the Czar, the only general thus far able to avoid defeat at the hands of “The Ogre”. Napoleon (R) in 1807 was a general in the full flower of his genius. At Eylau he suffered his first reverse.
Advanced Russian and French elements 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 a general engagement 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.
With intermittent snow flurries threatening a coming blizzard, the battle began in earnest at 8AM on February 8 with a massive artillery duel. After 30 minutes, 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 by intense fire, and fell 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 (the officer who would later command the Grenadiers of the Old Guard at Waterloo), began to arrive opposite the Russian left. To stop their progress, Bennigsen launched a cavalry attack from his left.
At 10:30AM, to relieve the pressure on Davout’s oncoming reinforcements and pin the Russian left in place, Napoleon 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 sight as the storm gusted up to blizzard level.
In what today we would call a “whiteout” Augereau’s men lost their way. Instead of moving against the Russian left they drifted northward toward the Russian center. This is easy to explain: most men are right-handed, and tend to stride more strongly with their right (dominant) leg. Thus it is easy to “drift” off course to one’s left, a common problem with hikers lost in the wilderness. At Eylau, in the blinding snow, the 15,000-strong ranks of Augereau’s Corps marched blindly into the “kill box” of the 70 massed guns of the Russian grand battery, arrayed across the center of Bennigsen’s line. Worse, the Russian batteries were still engaged in a fierce artillery duel against French guns around Eylau. Cannon balls flew back-and-forth across the valley. As they pushed up the slopes of the Russian side of the valley, Augereau’s doomed men drifted into this maelstrom of iron.
Caught in the crossfire, the carnage was sudden and total. Grapeshot from the Russian batteries raked their front, while round-shot from their own guns tore into their ranks from the rear. In minutes, Augereau’s VII Corps virtually ceased to exist. Of the two divisions totaling 15,000 men which comprised the Corps, only 3,000 returned to their starting position at the French side of the valley; amounting to a staggering 80% casualty rate. Of their senior officers, both of the two division commanders were mortally wounded, with Marshal Augereau himself wounded, though not fatally.
Before they could regain their own lines, worse was yet in store for Augereau’s shattered battalions. The Russians now launched an all out counter-attack with infantry and cavalry. The survivors of the VII Corps understandably broke and began fleeting back to their own side of the valley. All might have been cut down as they fled, but for the heroic stand of one regiment, the 14th Line; which instead formed square on a small hillock. As the pursuing Russian cavalry thundered down upon them, they held fast, repulsing the enemy and giving time for their fleeing comrades to escape.
Watching from Napoleon’s command post on the plateau above was Marcellin de Marbot , a gallant young officer of hussars serving that day as an Aide-de-Camp to the Emperor. In his memoirs, which make for fascinating and rousing reading, Marbot recounts the events that followed:
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 instructions gave their lives in the attempt. Marbot himself was next selected to make a third attempt.
Well-mounted on his swift Arab mare, Lisset, Marbot raced down the slope and through the screen of swarming 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 battalions of Russian foot in line now bearing down upon them, their 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 under him, the fall knocking him unconscious. Astonishingly, he awoke four hours later, wounded and stripped naked. (Marbot continued fighting on throughout Napoleon’s campaigns, eventually commanding a brigade of light horse at Waterloo, where he was wounded.)
Meanwhile, the Russian foot swarmed over the 14th, which fought on to the death. Moving onward across the valley floor, the Russian masses, bayonets glittering coldly, 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.
With his center in danger of collapsing and the two flanking Corps of Marshals Ney and Davout still hours away from effective commitment, Napoleon’s battle plan appeared to be collapsing into ruin. His center had ceased to exist; and nothing stood between the oncoming Russians and his own command post but his own Imperial Guards and Murat’s Cavalry Reserve.
At 11 am the Russian vanguard pushed into Eylau and to within 100 yards of Napoleon himself. Two battalions of the Imperial Guard rushed forward, battling the Russian grenadiers in the alleys and streets of the village. By 1130, the “grognards“ had pushed the Russian vanguard out of the village. But the bulk of the Russian center was still advancing in rank-after-rank, unstoppably toward Napoleon’s position.
Napoleon now summoned Marshal Murat, his brother-in-law and the dashing commander of his Reserve Cavalry Corps. Pointing to the oncoming Russians, he asked, “Will you let those men devour us”?
Murat immediately whirled about, galloping off to join his Corps, waiting to the rear. He hastily gathered them together, marshaling the regiments into one massive column. Each squadron drew-up behind the other, every trooper knee-to-knee. 10,700 superbly mounted cavalry: 4 regiments of armored cuirassiers to the front, followed by regiments of dragoons, hussars, and chasseurs.
Murat’s Reserve Cavalry Corps, 10,700 strong, charges forward in a massive column, into the oncoming Russian infantry. Led by the iron-clad cuirassiers, they his the enemy like a battering ram!
As they formed up, Russian musket and cannon shot whistled among them. Seeing some of his men flinching, 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) called out with icy contempt: “Heads up, by God! Those are bullets, not turds!”
“The Gods”: the Grenadiers à Cheval (heavy cavalry) of the Imperial Guard. These were held in reserve, and charged to support the safe withdrawal of Murat’s column.
At 11:45, wielding only his riding-whip, Murat’s led his regiments forward, a massive battering ram of men and horses. Walk turned into trot, trot to canter, canter broke into furious gallop!
Cresting the edge of the plateau on the French side of the valley, the hitherto triumphant Russian infantry were greeted by the thunder of 42,800 hooves as a torrent of French cavalry bore down upon them. The cuirassiers, at the head of the column, smashed into the staggering Russian regiments. As Captain Parquin of the Imperial Guard so eloquently observed, “the brave phalanx of infantry was soon leveled to the earth like a wheat-field swept by a hurricane”!
Murat charges at the head of the lead squadrons of cuirassiers, armed only with his riding crop!
Unchecked, the French cavalry swept into the valley, cutting down the fleeing survivors and scattering the prowling Cossacks like chaff before a hurricane. Breaking into two columns, one part wheeled to the right, smashing into and routing the Russian cavalry harassing Friant’s advancing vanguard, before rejoining their comrades. The main thrust followed Murat up the slope to the Russian side of the valley. Bursting out of the blinding snow, they overran the Russian artillery batteries that had so punished Augereau’s Corps. Sabering the hapless gunners and spiking their guns, Murat’s cavaliers exacted a bloody vengeance!
Galloping onward, the cavalry hit the unprepared ranks of infantry that comprised the Russian second line. As Marbot describes, “the terrible weight of this mass broke the Russian center, 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 Murat’s favor. Many Russian regiments were surprised as the French appeared out of the blizzard, and were ridden down before they could form squares. In other cases, hastily forming squares were shattered before they could set themselves to repel the charge.
Murat’s cavalry now found itself in the heart of the Russian army. While they had torn through the first two lines, they were now in hazardous position: between the reforming survivors of their charge behind, and Bennigsen’s final reserves of cavalry and infantry to their front. These latter now began firing upon them with musketry and cannon. Murat’s horsemen were in an untenable position, with their path of retreat perilous.
Perhaps sensing their predicament, Napoleon committed his own Guard Cavalry under Marshal Bessières, to cover their withdraw.
Led by Lepic’s magnificent Grenadiers à Cheval, visually striking in their tall bearskin shakos, and followed by the Emperor’s Guard Light Cavalry, the Chasseurs à Cheval (including the squadron of Egyptian Mameluks) these 2,000 elite cavalry plunged forward into the valley. Furiously laying about them with sword, they opened a blood-stained passage through which Murat’s weary horsemen could safely travel.
As Murat’s retreating riders streamed past the Guard cavalry 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.
“Look at these faces,” the redoubtable Lepic demanded, “and see if they mean to surrender!” With that he and his men wheeled about, and cut their way back to freedom.
Seeing the wounded Lepic after the battle, Napoleon went to him and said: “I thought you had been captured, general Lepic. I was feeling deeply sorrowful about it.” Lepic replied: “Sire, you will only ever hear of my death.” That evening, Lepic received 50,000 francs, which he immediately distributed to his men. Five days later, he would be promoted to general. (He continue to serve with gallantry throughout the Napoleonic Wars. Retiring in 1814, Lepic was awarded by the returned Bourbon king, Louis XVIII with the title of Count.)
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”.
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 Napoleo in possession of the corpse-strewn battlefield. The French remained at Eylau for another week, burying the dead and resting after their exertions. Eylau was the costliest battle for Napoleon’s Grande Armee to that date. 10,000–15,000 French and some 15,000 Russians had fallen (another 3,000 Russians were taken prisoner).
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 site of so many victims.”
Though Napoleon held the field after the battle, Eylau can only be regarded as a bloody, miserable draw. Strategically, the Emperor had failed to gain his objective, the destruction of Bennigsen’s army. That would wait till the following summer, when both armies would meet again at Friedland.
On the blood-drenched snowy field of Eylau the Russians had shown Europe that, despite the victories of Ulm, Austerlitz and Jena-Auersted Napoleon and his Grande Armee were a dangerous enemy, but not invincible.
- Napoleon, who read Marbot’s book in exile on St. Helena, said that it was the “best book I have read for years”, and that it had “given me the greatest amount of pleasure”. Napoleon further expressed his admiration for Marbot: “I should have liked to show Marbot my appreciation by sending him a ring. If I ever return to active life, I will have him attached to me as an aide-de-camp. He’s an educated man, who expresses himself simply, well, and correctly in writing.”
- Grumblers: the term used for the emperor’s veteran soldiers, and particularly the men of the Old Guard.
- David Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (New York: MacMillan Publishing Company), p.554)