Monday, March 26, 2018

Friedland 1807

14 June 1807

Napoleonic Wars
War of the Fourth Coalition

French: under Napoleon, approx. 11,000 with 19 guns, rising to 90,000 with 172 guns
Russians: under Count von Bennigsen, approx. 61,000 with 372 guns

Location: modern Pravdinsk in Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia, 54°26′N 21°01′E

Weather: Hot. Low 90s F (33 C)   Visibility: Clear

First Light:  0306   Sunrise:  0401 Sunset:  2113   End of Twilight: 2208
Moonrise: 14:45   waxing, 65% gibbous
All times UTC +2 (Bravo zone, Zulu +2)
(calculated from U.S. Naval Observatory from lat/long and date)

How to Catch a Monkey 

There's an ancient trick to catching a monkey. The trap is simple and takes advantage of the monkey's greed. A small hole is drilled into a hollow gourd, just large enough for the monkey to slip his hand in if the fingers are extended. Irresistible treats are put into the gourd and it is tied firmly to the trunk of tree. The curious monkey comes down from the trees, smells the treats inside the gourd, and slips his hand in to grab a fistful. But he can't pull his hand out unless he relaxes his fist and drops the treats, which he won't do. At least the stupidest and greediest of monkeys won't. This pretty much sums up how Napoleon caught the Russians at Friedland.

Friedland was a satisfying culmination for Napoleon to an otherwise miserable campaign. Since his brilliant double victory over the Prussian army at Jena and Auerstadt the year before, he had not been able to knock Prussia out of the war. And the exasperating Russians just wouldn't quit. Battle after battle had been some of the bloodiest Napoleon had ever fought, and yet each ended in a draw. Then at last came Friedland. As with my other articles, while Friedland may not be obscure to Napoleonophiles, it has always been dear to my heart as battles go, and I wanted to do a map and commentary on it. So if you are still one of those who complain, "What's so obscure about Friedland?" you need to get some fresh air.

Below is the deployment of the two forces at 0600 on Sunday, 14 June. Each battalion, regiment, and battery is represented by its actual, scale footprint.  You can see that by this time. after six hours, Lannes' thin force was still holding back the bulk of Bennigsen's army, which had crowded itself on the left bank of the Alle. (Map copyright protected by Digimarc digital watermark. If you'd like to purchase a hi-res version for private use, or to license it for publication, contact me or a representative of the Jeffery P. Berry Trust on The Maps section of this blog.)

A Bad Beginning

It seemed like Napoleon was losing his edge. The years 1805 and 1806 had seen two of his greatest strategic victories, Austerlitz and Jena-Auerstadt, in which he apparently had knocked out two formidable adversaries, Austria and Prussia. But since the latter battle, things hadn’t gone so well. Though three-quarters of its army was wiped out, Prussia was not completely subdued. It had fought on, moving its capital to the fortress port of Königsberg in East Prussia (now the Kaliningrad enclave of the Russian Federation). And the Russians had yet to come to terms, even though they had been one of the losers at Austerlitz. Napoleon had won the battles but hadn’t yet won the war—at least the latest War of the Fourth Coalition. So he and his army couldn’t go home to their adoring families. (Though the Emperor did have his new 20 year-old Polish mistress, Marie Walewska, to massage his throbbing temples.)

All during the winter and spring of 1806-07, Napoleon’s troops fought one bloody, indecisive battle after another with the Russians. From Pultusk to Golymin to Hof to Eylau to Heilsberg, the French won tactical victory after victory--inasmuch as the Russians would always withdraw from the battlefield in the night--but at such great cost and without the Russian commander, Bennigsen, surrendering.  The Russians just didn't know when they were beaten.

Consequently, that winter would greatly sap the strength and morale of the Grande Armée. Though it had fought ferociously for two continuous years, it was not allowed to go home yet. Suicides among the French troops were soaring. Napoleon estimated that 40% of his soldiers had deserted during the winter. The now-familiar term "grognards," which Napoleon had coined to describe his grumbling Guard infantry, who openly cursed him as he passed, started with this winter in Poland. He was a dictator, but not a vindictive one, and tolerated verbal abuse from his rank and file without punishing any of them. He seemed to recognize that they needed some outlet to their frustration.

Meanwhile, on the Baltic, the siege of Danzig dragged on, with 14,400 Prussians under Kalckreuth tying down nearly twice that number of French for months. Napoleon couldn't let this important port on the Baltic stay in Prussian hands. It was vital to secure his logistics. But the Prussians didn't know they were beaten either.

The Siege of Danzig, 19 March - 24 May 1807.
During the spring, though, Napoleon received fresh recruits to fill out his depleted divisions and the warming weather seemed to dose him with new adrenaline. He also accepted a new infusion of artillery and ammunition, as well as the first installment of brand new white uniform coats for his infantry regiments (I'm sure they were thrilled).

Danzig finally fell on 24 May after 78 days, freeing up 25,000 troops for maneuvering. His lines of communication secured, Napoleon's new goal was to seize the provisional Prussian capital of Königsberg, knock out Bennigsen's Russian field army once and for all, and force the Prussians and Russians to a strategic peace on his own terms.

But Bennigsen wouldn't stay pinned down and the Prussian commander at Königsberg, l'Estocq, who had turned the tide at Eylau, was digging in for a siege. On June 10, seemingly catching Bennigsen dug in on top of a bluff at Heilsberg (auspiciously, "Victory Mountain") on the Alle River, Napoleon's perpetually feuding commanders, Murat and Lannes, botched the battle, refusing to support each other, and ended up losing over 12,000 men to the Russians' 6,000, without achieving anything. Napoleon arrived the next day to separate the two and take charge. But in the night Bennigsen had withdrawn his army again, this time across to the eastern bank of the Alle.

By the time Napoleon had realized that Bennigsen had slipped away and was now making his way up the opposite bank of the Alle,to relieve Königsberg,  the Russian had stolen a march on him. The Emperor ordered Lannes to hurry up to Friedland (the next logical crossing point) to watch Bennigsen and dispersed the rest of his army to Königsberg (Murat, Soult, Davout) and Eylau (Mortier, Victor, Ney, and the Guard). He was furious at the neverending feud between his most beloved commanders, Murat and Lannes, and separated them as far as possible.

Bennigsen Sticks His Hand In

General Levin August von Bennigsen
One of those ubiquitous German soldiers in Russian
service. Though he was criticized for losing Friedland,
the Czar retained confidence in him and he went on to
fight at Borodino, during Napoleon's retreat from
Russia, and at Bautzen and Lutzen.
Two days later, around sunset on June 13, Bennigsen's advanced cavalry patrols had crossed the bridge over the little Alle River at Friedland (present day Pravdinsk in the Kalingrad Oblast of the Russian Federation) and drove in some pickets of Lannes' 9th Hussars. More cavalry poured over the bridge and began to fan out across the plain on the west bank, occupying two villages (Posthenen and Heinrichsdorf). They reported back to Bennigsen that many French troops were showing up and contesting the villages. Captured prisoners revealed that they were part of Lannes' Reserve Corps.

Bennigsen, who himself had been physically drained from the series of battles and endless maneuvering in the previous months, had come down with something. Probably exhaustion. He and his troops had marched almost non-stop from their fight at Heilsberg the 36 miles (58 km) to Friedland in forty-eight hours. They had neither rested nor eaten in those two days. His better judgment would have probably told him to leave the French where they were, continue up the right bank of the Alle, and then march the short distance down the Pregel to Königsberg. It would have been the more prudent thing to do.

But Bennigsen's scouts reported that Lannes was isolated at Friedland. It was just too tempting. He reasoned that the rest of Napoleon's corps were so scattered (the closest, according to his intelligence, were at Eylau, two days' march away by his calculations) that they couldn't come to Lannes' aid in time. He could hop across the river, deliver a quick killing blow to Lannes' isolated corps, and hop back across the Alle to safety before Napoleon could get there.  So that evening he ordered his engineers to throw three pontoon bridges across the river (all at Friedland, alongside the existing wooden bridge already there) and for his army to march over and eat up Lannes.

Here was the monkey smelling the treat in the gourd. The restricted geography of the situation--Friedland's narrow streets and the broken ground on the west bank--didn't suggest a trap. And placing all of his bridges at this choke point also didn't seem unwise. What could possibly go wrong?

Lannes Bites the Hand

Meanwhile, Lannes, hearing the reports of Russians crossing the river at Friedland, quickly sent back word to the Emperor at Eylau, 16 miles away, to tell him of this development. He sent forward what troops he had nearby, Oudinot's division of provisional elite battalions (grenadiers and voltigeurs), as well as Grouchy's dragoon division and Tilly's brigade of light cavalry. He had, at first only about 12,000 men and 18 guns to resist the growing horde of 61,000 Russians and over 370 guns, a forelorn hope reminiscent of Thermopylae.

But if anyone could do it, Lannes was the man. He was (at least in my amateur opinion) probably Napoleon's most competent general. Ever since Bonaparte's Italian campaigns the decade before, Lannes had performed miracles in the face of overwhelming odds. He knew how to keep an enemy at bay, by maneuver, inspired leadership, and, in many cases, bluff. This latter talent was critical in the wee hours at Friedland.

Oudinot's division and Grouchy's cavalry began to show up around midnight of the 13th, and Lannes distributed these limited assets from north of Heinrichsdorf to the Sortlack Woods in the south. Oudinot's men drove the Russian cavalry out of Posthenen and Lannes established his headquarters there. He also had Oudinot deploy his elites as whole battalions of skirmishers, holding back the oncoming Russian infantry.

Since the French were far more skilled at these light infantry, shoot-and-skoot tactics than the Russian jagers, they were able to confuse the enemy as to the exact size of the defending force. The ground around the battlefield was perfect for this kind of warfare. Not only were the crops (wheat and corn) high at this time of year, but the uncultivated land was itself covered in high foliage and bumpy ground, providing the French with unlimited opportunities for small ambushes (see photograph below). Consequently, though the troops of Gortchakov and Bagration had poured over the Alle, and could have overwhelmed the outnumbered French, they were not sure of how strong a force they were facing. And so they contented themselves with stopping and consolidating their lines.

A view from Bagration's forward positions looking toward the French center at Posthenen.  You can see how uneven and scrubby the ground is, ideal for light infantry tactics. It was also crisscrossed with ditches and swales that provided cover for ambushes.
Another view of the broken terrain in front of Posthenen, this from the French perspective. In the right middle distance is the one of the streams which separated the Russians from the village.

Bagration's Avant Garde under Raesvsky moved to the Russian left into Sortlack village and wood (see map) to secure Bagration's flank. Though his 4,200 jagers greatly outnumbered the two French elite battalions in the wood, they were cowed into inaction by what they perceived as unknown numbers of killer tirailleurs (literally, "sharpshooters") swarming in the woods ahead of them. So they contented themselves with just hunkering down at the edge of those woods, and occupying the riverside hamlet of Sortlack to guard the Russian left wing.

 A random view into Sortlack Woods. Though the woods were described as relatively free of undergrowth, visibility was such that the Russian jagers creeping forward, would not have been aware of how many lurking French tirailleurs they would encounter. A scary prospect. Admittedly, the woods might have been of a different density and species of trees two centuries ago, but this seemed to be the nature of woods around Friedland (Pravdinsk) today.

About the only aggressive activity the Russians indulged in during the early hours of the morning was an attempt by Uvarov's cavalry to toss the French out of Heinrichsdorf (on the road to Königsberg). But every time the Russian cavalry managed to take control of this "gateway" village, French cavalry (first under Grouchy and later the cuirassiers under Nansouty) would drive them out again. This seesaw fighting went on most of the morning until the arriving French reinforcements became too strong for Uvarov (and eventually Kollogribov's Guard Cavalry) to eject.

View toward Heinrichsdorf from the Russian perspective. This would have been the road to Königsberg, making control of the village key.

By 0600 Lannes had been holding back Bennigsen for about six hours, and the sun had been up for two. During this time more reinforcements had arrived in the form of Nansouty's heavy cavalry division and Lannes' second division under Verdier, with Polzen's Saxon brigade following closely, bringing Lannes' force to nearly 22,000. Napoleon was already racing toward Friedland from Eylau and had sent out orders for Mortier's VIII Corps, Ney's VI Corps, and Victor's I Corps to converge there. The Guard, under Bessieres, was with Napoleon. If Lannes could hold on for a few more hours, holding Bennigsen by the nose, the Emperor would have achieved local superiority and could annihilate the Russian at last. This time he wouldn't be able to get away.

Jean-Baptiste Antoine Marcellin de Marbot
Now who couldn't trust that adorable face?
Lannes had dispatched his aide, Jean-Baptiste Antoine Marcellin de Marbot, to ride back and report that he was holding on, but hurry; he didn't know how long he could. When Marbot reached Napoleon, he found him in an excellent mood. In Marbot's memoir the Emperor invited him to stay and ride along with him for a few miles so they could chat. In their conversation, he asked the 25-year-old how good his memory was. The young man said it was passable. The Emperor said, mischievously,  "Then what anniversary is today, the 14th of June?"


"Exactement! Marengo!" laughed Napoleon, "And today I'm going to do to the Russians what I did to the Austrians!" And he spurred his horse to a gallop. (I don't know if he did this, but it seems like the cinematic thing for him to have done.) As he passed his marching Guard columns, he called out, "What anniversary is today?" And they all shouted, "Marengo!" Everybody's spirits were high. It was a beautiful (if somewhat warm) spring day, and the Emperor's confident mood infected the whole army.

This time would be different.

In previous battles of the 1807 campaign, Bennigsen had always had a line of retreat. Wherever he took a stand, he could absorb the French attacks and then safely withdraw in the night, preserving his army while bleeding the French. But for the first time, the unfavorable ground around Friedland, would not allow that easy retreat. The crossing point (with all four bridges, for some reason, concentrated there) was a natural trap. The narrow peninsula on which Friedland sat was a traffic nightmare. To add to this disadvantage, Bennigsen's two wings (Gortchakov to the north and Bagration to the south), were separated by a steeply banked stream, the Mühlen Fluss (just "Mill Stream", a pretty generic name) which prevented each wing from easily supporting the other. The banks of this creek were steep, preventing easy crossing. Engineers threw a few makeshift planks over the gully, but they weren't much help.

Nevertheless, in spite of the fact that, after six hours, Bennigsen's overwhelming numerical superiority hadn't  managed to even dislodge Lannes' thin force, much less annihilate it, he failed to act on his earlier contingency and withdraw to safety. In fact, he made things worse by feeding more and more troops over the river. By 0600 forty-eight thousand Russians were crowded on the narrow wedge of land beyond Friedland, almost 80% of Bennigsen's army, their backs to the river, with only a narrow exit behind them. But more troops kept pouring over.

And yet despite a local superiority of  more than two-to-one, neither of the two Russian wing commanders, Gortchakov nor Bagration, did anything aggressive for most of the day, contenting themselves with occupying their ground and indulging in a slow artillery duel with the French. This inactivity went on for the next 11 hours, as the French kept building up their own strength to 90,000, flipping the advantage. By this time, Bennigsen had pushed even more of his army into the trap, sending over Dokhturov's Reserve Corps of the Guard and Somorov's 14th Division, bringing his overall strength to 61,000. But by this time he himself had become outnumbered. And still he wouldn't open his monkey's paw and slip out of the gourd.

View north looking along the face of Gortchakov's line toward the woods bordering the north of the battlefield. The ditch on the right shows the tactical insignificance of these features separating the French and Russian positions (see maps).

The one smart thing that Bennigsen didn't do was send all of his artillery across the river. The Russian army had the greatest ratio of artillery to men in any army of the age, over five guns per thousand men. Napoleon, the artillerist, was always envious of this strength, only ever able to achieve at most two tubes per thousand men at the height of the Grande Armée's existence.  But Bennigsen kept all but a fraction of his guns on the right bank, covering the left bank from high ground there. He allowed the infantry and cavalry to take some light batteries with them as close support (six-pounders and unicorns), but he had no massed batteries in the front line as Napoleon did. Not to be a spoiler, but when Bennigsen lost the battle, he at least was able to save the majority of his guns.

Napoleon himself arrived on scene around noon, taking overall command from Lannes, who had been up without sleep for nearly two days. It took until later that afternoon for his strength to accumulate to when he was comfortable with his relative superiority and position. During all of this hot afternoon, the two armies just looked at each other, occasionally firing isolated pot shots.

The emperor's staff and some of his marshals urged him to wait until the next day, when even more troops could come up. They had been chastened by earlier battles with the Russians, whom they regarded as dangerous. The Russians may not be aggressive, but attacking them would prove costly since they didn't retreat. Napoleon dismissed this cautious advice. He told them he intended to attack at 17:00, lulling Bennigsen into thinking he wouldn't that day. But, he said, he wasn't going to let this chance slip away. "We won't catch the enemy making a mistake like this twice," he said.

Bennigsen, and all of his commanders, did think Napoleon would not attack that day. He had intended to withdraw back over the river under the safety of darkness (sunset was at 21:13) and continue to march up the right bank of the Alle and around to Königsberg. Meanwhile, he'd let his tired infantry rest in the hot sun.

Ernst Messonier's glorious salon painting (1875, Metropolitan Museum of Art) of Napoleon reviewing his cuirassier regiments before the Battle of Friedland.

At the Last Minute...

Napoleon looked at his watch. At 1700 he nodded to his favorite artillery commander, Senarmont, to give the signal, three simulaneous salvos of 30 guns in the center.  The French attack began.

Napoleon's orders were for an oblique attack, beginning with Ney's VI Corps on the right through the Sortlack Woods and onto Bagration's left. Ney's two lead divisions, Marchand's and Bisson's, were to erupt from the woods and charge into Bagration's flank, driving him into the crowded streets of Friedland.

In the meantime, the French left, held by Mortier's VIII Corps and Grouchy's cavalry were to open  fire on Gortchakov but not attack until released by Napoleon. This was intended to pin the Russian left long enough for Ney to block their retreat to the bridgehead. It also required a steady, disciplined restraint on the part of Grouchy, who, in Murat's absence, was overall cavalry commander. I'm sure that one of the reasons Napoleon had sent Murat north to invest Königsberg was to keep him away from the Friedland battlefield. Murat's impetuosity, egotism, and history of insubordination (not to mention his constantly picking fights with Lannes) could have ruined the whole plan. One of Napoleon's oft quoted maxims was, "Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake." And Murat was The Great Interrupter.

Knowing he was a couple days away, Napoleon did shrewdly send Murat an order to hurry up and capture Königsberg so he could get down to Friedland to participate in the apres-dejuner pursuit. But he knew the message wouldn't reach him in time and undoubtedly sent it to make him feel needed. Which he wasn't.

In the center, Napoleon stationed Lannes' exhausted divisions, Victor's fresher I Corps, and the Imperial Guard to act as reserves to support Ney. But the first action fell to that red-headed marshal.

At about 17:00 Napoleon's entire force was in position. Though he was planning to start his withdrawal right after sunset, Bennigsen had not yet begun. But the Russians had consolidated their front line in a continuous defensive front. Here you can see how he had lined the opposite bank of the Alle with the majority of his artillery.

Ney Attacks

At 1700 Ney heard the three salvos of massed artillery at Posthenen and ordered his two division commanders,  Marchand and Bisson, to start their attack. Skirmishers pushed back the Raevsky's remaining jagers at the north end of the woods as the infantry in close columns began to push up the roads in the woods and out into the open.  They were supported on their right by the VI Corps cavalry brigade under Colbert, who drove back the Russian hussars and jagers in Sortlack village.

Anticipating the end-of-day withdrawal, Bagration had already started to slowly collapse his front, inching his battalions backward toward Friedland.  Since the French hadn't done anything all day but increase their numbers, he, like Bennigsen, had assumed that they wouldn't attack until the next day. It was quitting time. Everybody was starting to pack up to march back over the bridges. The supporting artillery, having shot away all of their ammunition during the all-day, fruitless cannonade, were sent back first.

But now the shock of the strong French battery commencing a bombardment from Posthenen, as well as the sudden emergence of Ney's columns from the Sortlack Woods, caught Bagration and Bennigsen off guard.

Kogine's 30 squadrons of Russian cavalry, covering Bagration's flank, did not panic, though. Seeing the French infantry chasing the jagers out of the woods, Kogine saw his duty. As the French columns emerged, they came into the open in some disarray and were struggling to shake themselves into columns of attack. Kogine's front line was less than 400 yards from them, just two minutes away. If he could slam into them before they had formed, he could rout the whole lot. He ordered an all out charge.

As the Russian cavalry thundered toward them, the discipline and superior experience of Ney's infantry gave some of the battalions time to form emergency squares. Some did not and were thrown back into the relative safety of the woods by the galloping Russians. A good way to start a battle, as far as Kogine was concerned.

But then, wheeling around the northwest corner of the woods, seemingly out of nowhere, came Latour-Maubourg's 3,200 dragoons. In column of regiments they crashed into Kogine's now-disorganized 2,200 horsemen, milling around the squares and hacking at the fleeing French, completely ruining their fun. After a brief sabre fight, Kogine's two brigades galloped back to plunge into the Alle and swim their horses to the opposite bank. Latour chased them to the edge, then rallied his squadrons, ready to support Ney while his infantry regrouped.

After several minutes, Ney's two divisions (Marchand and Bisson) came back out into the open and formed up in columns of attack in readiness to continue toward Bagration's left flank. As they moved forward, though, they found themselves facing a new nasty surprise.

A typical French infantry battalion of nine companies deploying from Column of Attack to Line on the center. The two center companies would remain in place while the others would fan right and left by files at the double. The Column of Attack also served as a more-or-less instant  square against cavalry if the companies merely closed up the space between them.

Bennigsen's prudent deployment of his heavy guns on the opposite bank of the river paid off. Marchand's and Bisson's infantry found themselves in close range and enfiladed by dozens of guns on the high ground across the river. They and Latour's dragoons took heavy casualties--probably the lion's share of French casualties for the whole battle--and retreated back to the woods again to regroup. So the initial attack was stalled.

However, the hero of the day would turn out to be Alexandre Senarmont, Victor's I Corps artillery commander. According to Marbot in his memoirs, Senarmont got Napoleon's permission to commandeer as many batteries as he could (from his and Ney's command), take the assembled guns up close to the banks of the Alle, and proceed to hail the opposing Russian artillery with canister.  This didn't knock out the guns themselves but it proved to be a meat grinder for their crews and horses. So, within minutes, the opposing batteries were neutralized. Clearing the way for a renewed assault.

Ever since his equally adroit handling of his artillery in the early days of the Italian Campaign, Napoleon had long trusted Senarmont as his most audacious artillery commander. He was to the guns as Murat was to cavalry. Both he and the emperor saw eye-to-eye on the theory of how to use artillery. Like Napoleon, and breaking with the traditional, defensive use of artillery of the age, Senarmont believed that the artillery should be concentrated and handled as an offensive arm, very much as Rommel and Guderian, 130 years later, revolutionized tank warfare. Senarmont is credited with inventing the "artillery charge" in which he kept pushing massed guns up in sequence to within potato-chucking distance of the enemy, blasting canister into their ranks.

While he was rallying his infantry and Senarmont was neutralizing the Russian artillery on the opposite bank of the river, Ney got another source of unexpected help. Dupont, Victor's 1st Division commander, decided on his own to cover for Ney and attack Bagration with his own division of 7,000. This had the effect of keeping up the pressure on the Russian left and giving time for Ney to regroup yet again and renew his own assault.

Ney had by now reformed his own divisions. With the Russian artillery on his right neutralized, and Bagration preoccupied on his front by Dupont, he resumed his attack on Bagration's flank.

Senarmont was on a roll this afternoon. Having swept the Russian batteries off the hill on the east bank of the river, he swung his own thirty guns around and started moving them forward toward Bagration's line in leapfrog fashion, pumping barrage after barrage of roundshot and finally case into the packed Russian infantry. He did this until he was within a few dozen yards of the enemy line, ripping huge, bloody holes in the Russian battalions. Watching through his spyglass, trying to make out what was happening through the smoke, Napoleon became worried about losing his old gunner friend and sent an aide to him to find out if he was in trouble. Senarmont, a little distracted at the moment, curtly told the aide that he was busy and that the Emperor should let him do his job. He was so close to his target that his gunners took horrific casualties from the Russian musketry, but he gave back ten times what he took, with entire battalions of Russian infantry mowed down. Marbot claims that 4,000 were killed by Senarmont's guns alone. The Russian, couldn't answer this slaughter with their own frontline artillery since their guns were either withdrawn or out of ammunition.

The stalwart Russians enduring this point blank cannonade, gradually began to waiver. Beginning in the support formations to their rear (closest to the bridges) a few individuals started running back through the town, like the first bouncing pebbles in front of an avalanche. Sensing their backups evaporating behind them, Bagration's front battalions now started to involuntarily shuffle backwards, with more and more individual soldiers breaking from the rear ranks, ducking around the bellowing NCOs trying to shove them back into line.

The Massacre

As Ney's infantry now caught up to Senarmont's forward guns and raced through them to fall on the shaky ranks of greencoats, the avalanche to the rear of Bagration's line broke. The French infantry never had to collide with the front ranks of the Russian infantry; they only had to step over the piles of mangled corpses and chase after the fleeing rest.  Ney's men charged into the town after the routed Russians, bayoneting as they went. The Russians, trying to get to the bridges, were so jammed into the tight streets and houses that, according to Marbot, who accompanied Ney into town, they couldn't use their arms, but only presented dense targets to the oncoming French.

Meanwhile, Bennigsen, still on the opposite bank, directing the battle from afar, kept feeding his remaining troops across the bridges in the opposite direction, trying to reinforce failure. Rather than helping, this had the counter-effect of increasing the traffic jam as the battalions of Somorov's 14th Division ran headlong into the fugitives of Bagration's divisions. So the bridges were now packed with humans trying to surge both ways.

Friedland was in gridlock. Senarmont had his howitzers lob shells into the town to start fires and more grisly casualties, further increasing the panic (see my article on Lobowitz 1756 in which Frederick's artillery did the same thing to the retreating Austrians at that battle). The bend in the river at Friedland afforded an opportunity for enfilade so he also had his gunners start firing at the packed humanity on the bridges, using howitzers to break the spans themselves. One by one the four bridges collapsed, either under the weight of people or from shell bursts. This had the effect of snapping the trap.

Word got to Gortchakov in the Russian center that the left wing had broken and Friedland, the  army's sole line of retreat, was threatened. He ordered Dokhturov's reserve division under Mallutin to wheel left and try to throw back Ney and retake the town. He did not know, at the time, that the bridges had been broken.

Mallutin's attempt, even with the regiments of the Russian Imperial Guard, failed. As fresh and elite as they were, they had trouble filing over the makeshift bridges across the Mühlen Fluss separating the Russian wings. They were met by Dupont's division who shot them down as they tried to cross and reform.

A sense of doom now rippled through the entire Russian army.

Simeon Fort's panoramic painting of Friedland (c 1840). In the left distance you can see hundreds of Russian fugitives who have forded (or swum) across the narrow Alle. In the foreground he shows the streets and yards of Russian infantry and artillery packing. Gortchakov's line is on the upper right, beyond the shallow lake and windmill, still exchanging fire with Mortier's corps. Up the middle, running directly away from us, is the infamous Mühlen Fluss that separated the Russian wings.

The Killing Blow

The panic in the Russian rear was visible from Napoleon's viewpoint in front of Posthenen. Friedland was burning, the bridges were burning, hordes of Russians were jumping into the river like lemmings (or, like lemmings are erroneously thought to do). He could also see the start of retrograde movement in Gortchakov's line on his left.

With his perfect sense of timing, the emperor now gave Mortier and Grouchy the nod to commence their own attacks on the Russian center and right. He was probably thinking how glad he was that Murat wasn't on the battlefield because that hot head would have charged prematurely earlier in the day. (I'll never understand why Napoleon kept that lunging puppy around.)

As Mortier's infantry and Grouchy's cavalry moved forward across the ditches separating them from the double lines of Gortchakov's infantry and Uvarov's cavalry, the Russian battalions started to break like Bagration's had earlier. Men began racing rearward, toward the river, first in ones and twos and then in clumps, and soon by entire battalions. Word had quickly spread that the way back to the bridges was blocked, and, looking nervously over their shoulders, they could see the town burning. The panic was contagious. Thousands of men dropped their weapons and threw themselves into the river, hoping to swim or dog paddle across the stream. Apparently some Cossacks had found a ford upstream from Friedland, opposite Kloschenen, but Marbot describes how most of the Russian army drowned in the river.

This story seems odd to me. If you look at how narrow the river is (about 15-25 meters, see photo below), remember that it was a hot summer, and that the cavalry didn't seem to have a lot of trouble crossing, this claim of Marbot's is hard to believe, unless the stampede of men and horses was such that many were pushed underwater by the crowd. But the river is no Mississippi.

 Alle River (now the Lava) at Friedland. It is only about 80 feet wide.

Meanwhile, on the extreme north of the battlefield, most of Uvarov's and Kolligribov's cavalry, after having gamely tried to engage with Grouchy's cavalry, saw the mass rout of Gortchakov's infantry to their south and concluded it was time to catch their own bus. But rather than joining the stampede in the center to try and get over the river, Uvarov and Kolligribov, led their still-intact commands up the left bank to cross farther north at their leisure. It being about sunset, Grouchy called off the pursuit, contenting himself with riding down, killing, and rounding up the low-hanging fruit of Russian infantry crowding the banks.

There was one more, half-hearted attempt to resist when Platov, and his 7,000 Cossacks, showed up late on the other side of the river opposite Sortlack. These made a demonstration as if to cross, probably swearing a lot and shaking their lances in a cossacky way, but nothing came of it. Colbert's cavalry and Ney's third division under Brun firmly held the left bank here. Any attempt to ford across by Platov would have met with disaster. So the Cossacks flipped the French off (in cossacky fashion) and moved off.

Painting by Russian salon painter Viktor Mazurovksy (1912) of the Russian Guard Cuirassiers engaging French cuirassiers at Friedland. The town is seen in the distant right, behind the windmill and the mill pond, which would have the Russian cavalry in this picture charging from the west and driving the French back toward...uh...the river. He seems a little turned around. Also, it was apparent from the sources I used that the Russian Guard Cuirassier Regiment was not at the battle. But I could be wrong. I wasn't there. Nor was Mazurovsky. But it is a stirringly patriotic painting, isn't it?

The victory, however, was complete for Napoleon. Bennigsen's pesky army had at last been destroyed and he didn't have his usual chance to steal away in the night to fight another day. And Königsberg's hope of relief was dashed. Its Prussian garrison commander, Lestocq, hearing of the disaster at Friedland on the 16th, abandoned the town to Soult's corps.

Well, that happened.

Bennigsen lost about 30% of his army, around 11,000 dead, 7,000 wounded (total 18,000). He also lost some 80 guns. Of course, he managed to have preserved the bulk of his army's artillery because he kept it relatively safe on the right bank. There has been some debate about the casualties, at least on the Russian side, because the French reported almost no unwounded prisoners. This would either attest to the incredible tenacity of the Russian soldiers to die before surrendering, or that the French were bayoneting prisoners. Let's go with the brave Russians story. That way both nationalities retain their honor.

It was a fairly costly victory for Napoleon's troops as well. With 1,372 killed outright,  9,108 wounded, and 53 prisoners (probably taken the night before), the total was (don't worry, I'll do the math) 10,533, or 11.6% of his total force present. This casualty ratio was even higher if you match it against only those engaged (about 62,000, the Guard and most of Victor's troops having been kept inactive in reserve), or 17%. So it was not a cheap win.

Undoubtedly night (which fell about 2200) and the Alle River saved Bennigsen from total annihilation. Grouchy, whose troopers had been fighting more or less continuously for 20 hours, was pretty spent. Some historians have snarkily linked this post-victory inaction to Grouchy's later inaction during the Battle of Waterloo. But Grouchy was a reliable, disciplined, and competent cavalry commander, one whom Napoleon continued to rely on and promote. Undoubtedly, had Murat been present, he would have whipped his exhausted troopers into an all-night chase. But had he been present (as I've already noted) he might have prematurely flipped the trap and cost Napoleon the victory.

Horace Vernet's 1835 painting of Napoleon supervising the mop up at the end of the battle, giving instructions to Oudinot. Behind him are Nansouty and Ney (with the red hair) and a nice bouquet of captured Russian flags. In front of him is a trooper of the 9th Hussars, who had been the first in the battle from the night before.

At any rate, this defeat and the fall of Königsberg were severe enough strategic blows that Bennigsen crossed the Pregel,  burned his bridges over that river, turned right instead of left to Königsberg , and withdrew the rest of his army back across the Nieman.

After two years of combat, Czar Alexander I, took this last defeat to heart and agreed to meet Napoleon in person on a raft in the middle of the Nieman to discuss peace. Both emperors were reportedly charmed by each other. And though he had the whip hand, Napoleon was generous in his terms, handing over quite a bit of territory (at Austria's, Sweden's, and Turkey's expense) to Alexander.   His only caveat, other than a cessation of hostilities and the return of the Ionian Islands in the Adriatic to France, was that Russia join the Continental System to blockade England. This was fine with Alexander since he was not particularly fond of Britain in the first place (and he probably knew that the blockade was unenforceable in the Baltic since Napoleon didn't have much of a Navy). So they both signed and embraced and departed new best friends.

To the Prussians, however, Napoleon was far less friendly. He stripped them of almost all of their provinces in the west, creating a new puppet Kingdom of Westphalia (with his brother as king). He also took all of Prussia's Polish provinces to create the Grand Duchy of Warsaw (including provinces that had never been part of Poland to begin with, like East Prussia). The Russians wouldn't have stood for a renewed Kingdom of Poland, so the Poles had to be satisfied with a Grand Duchy (halfway between a plain old duchy and a kingdom). And he split Saxony off of Prussia too, recreating it as an allied kingdom. Prussia, reduced to its pre-Frederican borders, was also required to pay crippling reparations to the French Empire. Of course, all of this would come to bite Napoleon in his tender parts viciously after 1812 when Prussia, humiliated, rose again like a phoenix to become his worst and most lethal foe. An object lesson on the value of magnanimity in victory; don't humiliate your conquered foes, for they will surely remember it when the tables are reversed.

Some Amateur Theorizing

Aside from the fact that Friedland was one of Napoleon's most strategic victories, there are some issues about the battle that I have wondered about. The first is...

What was Bennigsen thinking?

We know that his original idea was that he could quickly skip over the river to gobble up Lannes' outnumbered and exposed corps, and then skip back before Napoleon would know what had happened. But the activity of his troops once over there left a lot to be desired. Had he not told Gortchakov, Uvarov, or Bagration what their mission was?  They just seemed to be content with marching out a couple thousand yards on the plain west of Friedland to pick flowers.

Perhaps it was too dark and they weren't sure how many French there were or where exactly. But that's what they had Cossacks and all that light cavalry for, reconnaissance. And this was near the solstice, in a very northern latitude. The sun started coming up a little after 0300 and by 0400 they had full light, with the sun at their backs (a tactical advantage,since the French had to squint through the morning haze). And yet, except for a lot of tit-for-tat cavalry skirmishes around Heinrichsdorf, the rest of Bennigsen's army just kept filing over to sit. And sit. And sit.

The rest of the French army didn't start showing up until after 0600 and yet Bennigsen's mission to destroy Lannes was stalled. And then, even when the French did start arriving--and it took them until late afternoon to get their full strength--during the whole day the Russians still did nothing except indulge in some cavalry skirmishes on the northern fringe.

One has to ask, if he wasn't going to fight, and he wasn't going to eat up Lannes when he was weak, why didn't Bennigsen follow his original plan and start pulling back over the river early, instead of waiting until the end of the day?

My hunch is that he was sick in bed. And not paying attention. Narratives do mention him as being unwell. And he had been up and hard marching (as had his entire army) for three consecutive days after Heilsberg. He might have caught something. He spent the whole battle on the near side of the river at Allenau (see map). That seems to indicate he was in bed, or at least resting in his coach, listening to reports and dictating orders without actually seeing what was going on. But that's my theory.

And, as I've noted, the entire Russian army had been fighting and force marching for four days (including Heilsberg), so perhaps none of them had the energy to go further.

Why were the bridges all clumped together next to the flammable town?

It's easy to point this out as an armchair general, but putting all of their pontoons next to each other to a bridgehead that was already a chokepoint was a bonehead decision by Bennigsen's engineers.  They could have spread them out, allowing access from both flanks and under the cover of his ample artillery on the  heights. As it turned out, having all three pontoon bridges next to the existing wooden bridge at Friedland not only made them vulnerable to close artillery fire, but compounded the traffic control problem.

Crossing through a town on a narrow strip of land and having that town be your only line of retreat was a terrific blunder. Napoleon saw this at once. He also saw that more and more Russians were crossing the into that town all through the day. His maxim, "Never interrupt your enemy when he's making a mistake" couldn't have been more apt than at Friedland.

Again, this supports my theory that Bennigsen, an otherwise competent field commander, was sick and absent. His orders, written from bed, might have been vague. And the default order, for the whole army to keep on keeping on over the river, was probably never corrected in light of events.

Senarmont's and Napoleon's artillery theory put into practice

I imagine that the stroke of genius that Senarmont executed, moving his guns enmass in a series of closer and closer positions until they were blasting at the dense Russian columns from musket range, was something that he and Napoleon had talked about more than once. Apparently, either Napoleon had ridden over to Senarmont or the latter had gone back to Napoleon to ask for permission to do this. It was a risky move. But for the first time in a European battle, Napoleon was able to use artillery aggressively and in concentration. The tactic proved to be so famously successful that tacticians began using it throughout the following century, and teaching it in their staff colleges.

In one sense, it was a tank attack over a century before there were tanks. And, like Guderian's armored tactics in WWII with his own concentrated armor, Senarmont's tactic required infantry support to immediately follow up and pour into the gaps blown open by his guns (or the tanks).

One of my favorite of the Belle Epoch French salon painters, Eduoard Detaille's painting of the charge of the 4th Hussars at Friedland, 1895. Although accurate as far as uniform is concerned, I'm bothered by the hussars appearing to wear their fur lined pelisses. Considering the extremely hot, muggy day, I imagine that the hussars had left their red over-jackets behind in camp and would have worn just their dark blue dolmans...for those of you military miniature painters.

Wargame Considerations

Friedland is an obvious testable scenario for a wargame. There are so many factors which could be played to allow the Russian player to prevail or to draw the game. In fact, a drawn game, allowing the Russian player to exit safely after dark (as he did at all previous battles in this campaign) could also be considered a Russian victory.

Hidden French

If the only thing keeping the Russians from pressing ahead with Bennigsen's plan to annihilate Lannes' isolated detachment in the early hours was not knowing exactly where and how strong the French were, a rule that would hide any French troops from the Russian player would make the game more realistic (ala the old Battleship search rule). The Russian player could use small cavalry probes (like pawns) to query sections of the battlefield west of Posthenen, in the Sortlack Woods, or around Heinrichsdorf. The French player could keep his hidden units noted (say on cards or a spreadsheet) and if queried by an adjacent Russian marker could say yes or no. Or, decoy markers could be used if the off-board bookkeeping method is too cumbersome.

Also, the actual initial strength of the French player would be randomized at the beginning of the game.

Relative Combat Effectiveness

The CE of the French Army during this campaign was probably at its pinnacle. Though there had been some losses during the previous year, the regiments had, by mid-June, been brought back up to strength with well-trained recruits. Also the French NCOs at this stage were still some of the best in Europe. Morale might have been somewhat lower, however, as the Grande Armée had been on deployment for two years, and were thinking this war was never going to end.

Though the Russian infantry was not particularly well led, the stubbornness of the Russian soldier should be considered extremely high. Frederick the Great had said of them a generation earlier, it wasn't enough to shoot them, you had to knock them over. So even though they were taking horrific casualties from Senarmont's artillery and Ney's and Dupont's musketry, it took a lot to get them to retreat. And until the Russian army broke, they were giving as good as they took in terms of inflicting casualties.

Alternate Bridgeheads

Since the colossal blunder that Bennigsen was known for in this battle was putting all his bridges in one place, at the choke point of Friedland, an interesting scenario for a wargame would be to allow the Russian player to determine where to throw his pontoon bridges. He could, just to see, spread them out, above and below Friedland. Or he could try putting them all at a different location (say opposite Kloschenen) which were not so prone to congestion. The main reason I play wargames myself is to test hypotheticals. And this would certainly be one hypothetical  worth testing.

River Fords

The Alle River was lower than usual (owing to the heat and time of year) and may have been fordable in places. According to some of  my sources, some Russian artillery batteries were even able to cross at the ford discovered by some Cossacks near Kloschenen. As with reconnoitering rules for discovering hidden French at the beginning of the battle, the same rule could apply to finding fords. Only cavalry can test for fords, however.

The Alle should otherwise be considered impassable to infantry if a ford is not identified at that point. Evidently, the training of the average Russian soldier at the time didn't include swimming lessons.

Heat and Fatigue

It was reportedly sweltering on the day of the battle. So any rules governing fatigue or endurance reflect a faster rate of tiring.


One of the critical factors of this battle was the role of the Sortlack Woods. Though reportedly relatively free of undergrowth, moving through them would have still broken up close formations. So the French infantry columns would only be able to move undisordered along the roads (see map). Skirmishers (including cavalry) can move through these woods, but only at the slowest rate.


Though the Russians had several entire battalions of jagers, light infantry tactics were still new to this army. The French, who had been trained at skirmishing tactics since the mid 1700s, were far more skilled at open warfare. Therefore the combat efficiency of French troops in skirmish order should be far higher than the Russians.

Russian Artillery Variant

As I pointed out, Bennigsen had kept the majority of his guns on the right bank of the Alle. Except for the battery that enfiladed Ney (which Senarmont subsequently obliterated), none of this force participated in the battle. Ironically, though the Russians enjoyed dramatic artillery superiority, at the front of the battle, the advantage was reversed. The Russian infantry did have small detachments of light guns in close support, but nowhere was there anything like the concentration that the French had.

One scenario would be to test whether the outcome be different if the Russians had been able to mass their numerous heavy guns at their front. They might have theoretically overwhelmed the French massed batteries and, once the French attacks had started, done to them what Senarmont had done to the Russian infantry. It would be a risk, in that had Bennigsen still lost the battle he would conceivably have lost all of his artillery. But as the result of this battle proved to be the end of the war as it was (of the Fourth Coalition anyway), that may not have mattered. Had Bennigsen, instead, beat Napoleon to a standstill using his superior artillery, the war may have gone on, or Napoleon may have negotiated for peace on more favorable terms to the Prussians and Russians.

Orders of Battle

The following OOBs were derived from a variety of sources (see References below). I used, as the primary guide, George Nafziger's OOBs, with the exception of d'Espagne's cavalry division. Nafziger states that this division was not present at the battle, but Napoleon's own battle orders specifically mention d'Espagne as fighting on the left wing under Grouchy. So I tend to go with the horse's mouth, pardon the pun.

Caveats and Key to the Table

First Column Command  is the name of the command or regiment, colored in the primary uniform coat color for each regiment. The order to change the standard coat for the French infantry from blue to the old white came at the beginning of 1807. Only some of the regiments received their new white coats (noted in the OOB), but I am not sure they actually donned them before the order was rescinded later that year after the Peace of Tilsit.

Also, while I have listed the actual, historic companies of the French batteries, not having that detail for the Russian OOB, I've listed Russian artillery batteries sequentially (Bty #1,#2,#3, etc.) from north to south for map reference.

Second Column  Facing  is the command level and type, using standard military symbology. This column is color-coded in the “facing” color of the regiment, that is, the cuffs, lapels, and sometimes turnbacks of their coats.   

Third Column  Flag  is a miniature of the regimental flag, if known. If unknown, this cell is left blank. Some units, notably the combined grenadier battalions, did not carry flags. The Russian army during the Napoleonic Wars went through a variety of flag redesigns and those represented here seem, from my sources, to be the ones still carried by the units at Friedland.

Fourth Column  Strength is the approximate strength of each unit. For this battle, I used reported brigade and division strengths from George Nafziger's research and averaged them per subunits. These include the book strengths of artillery commands. Major Caveat: Individual subunits may have varied considerably, so do not cite these for any academic purposes.

Fifth Column  Guns is the allocated number of tubes for each battery. Narratives give Benningsen's army many fewer guns than the number of batteries Nafiziger's OOB reports (120 vs 372 tubes), which would assume that  each battery had less than a third of the twelve pieces allocated in its TOE. But the Russian army had always been known for having the highest number of artillery per man, a ratio Napoleon (a gunner by training) said he envied.


As a courtesy to the authors and retailers, I have linked each title to Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon (my local retailer of choice but with an online store), or, failing Powell's in-stock inventory, to Amazon. The ISBN number is also included should you like to support your own, local book seller or public library.

Chandler, David, "The Campaigns of Napoleon", MacMillan,  1966, ISBN 0025236601 

Chandler, David, "Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars", MacMillan, 1979, ISBN 0-02-523670-9

Elting, John & Esposito, Vincent, "A Military History and Atlas of the Napoleonic Wars", Greenhill Books, 1999, ISBN 1-85367-346-3

Forte, Simon & Swift, Michael, "Historical Maps of the Napoleonic Wars", PRC, 2003, ISBN 1-85648-733-4   

Hourtoulle, F.G., From Eylau to Friedland, 1807, The Polish Campaign, Histoire & Collections, Paris, 2007, ISBN 978-2-35250-021-6

Marbot,  Jean-Baptiste, "The Exploits of Baron de Marbot", Caroll & Graf, 2000, ISBN 0-7867-0801-8

Nafziger, George, "Imperial Bayonets" , Greenhill Books, 1995, ISBN 1-85367-250-5

Nafziger, George, OOB for Friedland 1807

Nosworthy, Brent, "With Musket, Cannon and Sword: Battle Tactics of Napoleon and His Enemies", Sarpedon, 1996, ISBN 1-885119-27-5

Summerville, Christopher, Napoleon's Polish Gamble: Eylau & Friedland 1807 Pen & Sword Books, Ltd., 2005, ISBN 1-84415-260-X

Online References:

Marbot's Memoires, la bataille de Friedland

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