Three Napoleonic Battles / Edition 2

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This narrative account of three Napoleonic battles adheres rather closely to the Aristotelian configuration of evolving tragedy. The historian succeeds in presenting herein events and character not only in historical reality but also in unities employed by the artist or tragedian. For a beginning of this lively, military story, Harold T. Parker chooses a portrayal of Napoleon at the height of his power, the battle of Friedland. The middle episode is concerned with Napoleon in his first serious personal check, the battle of Aspern-Essling. To complete the unity and to conclude the tragic progression, the author resurveys the episode of Napoleon's final defeat at the battle of Waterloo.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822305477
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 6/28/1983
  • Series: Duke Press Paperbacks
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 220
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Read an Excerpt

Three Napoleonic Battles

By Harold T. Parker

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1988 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-0547-7



The small town of Friedland lies in northeastern Europe, in East Prussia, on the left bank of the River Alle. It is built on a small peninsula of land, bounded on the south and east by the twisting Alle, on the north by the lake and marsh of the tributary Mill Stream. By land, it opens to the west. In that direction, back from the town stretches an immense plain, which slopes gently upward from the river into the distance. Around and beyond the plain, about two miles away, lies a forest. In a vast, irregular semicircle, with only a few breaks, it sweeps from the River Alle south of the town, around to the west, and then to the north until again its trees fringe the river. In the plain thus enclosed on three sides by a forest and on the fourth by a river, there is only one notable irregularity: the Mill Stream, scarcely fordable, from the forest in the west to Friedland, cuts across at the bottom of a steep ravine. It divides the plain into two sections, northern and southern.

Along that edge of the forest which borders the plain lie three villages: to the south of Friedland, on the river, the village of Sortlack; to the west, Posthenen, on the road to Eylau; to the northwest, Henrichsdorflf, on the road to Königsberg. At the opening of the nineteenth century these villages and Friedland were inhabited by Germans, then a frugal and industrious race. By good farming, which requires character as well as skill, their ancestors and they had raised the Friedland region to a high level of well-being, cleanliness, and comfort. And in the spring of 1807, as they had done for many years before, they went into the Friedland plain, plowed and harrowed and sowed rye and wheat. The crop prospered. By the middle of June it stood so high that a kneeling man would be concealed behind it. Except then for gardens along the river, the entire plain was a vast field of grain stretching away to the forests which bound the horizon.

Now, it so happened that on June 13, 1807, in the Friedland area just beyond the horizon to the south and southwest, armies were marching. Coming down the Alle from the south, the Russian Army was retreating along the river-road which passed Friedland on the opposite bank. Coming cross-country from the southwest, the French, in pursuit, were scattered along a road which passed from the town of Eylau, Napoleon's headquarters, through the Friedland forest, through the village of Posthenen on the edge of that forest, and then across the two-mile plain into Friedland. When the Russian advance cavalry arrived opposite Friedland at 3 P.M., June 13, they found the town occupied by a French regiment of hussars. The Russian cavalry crossed the river over a bridge, attacked, drove out the French, took prisoners, and occupied the town. From the prisoners, the Russian commander, General Bennigsen, who came up that night with the rest of the army, learned that only the French advance guard, a division or two, were on the Friedland plain. He calculated, therefore, that he had time to cross the river with part of his army, whip the advance guard, and make off before Napoleon and the French Army could catch him. In accordance with this calculation, the next morning at dawn, he ordered a division to cross the river and attack; that proving insufficient, he ordered another division across, and another, and another, and so on. As a result, through most of that June morning his entire army of forty-six thousand men, like grains of sand in the neck of a huge hourglass, trickled across the long, frame town bridge and the two pontoon army bridges, worked their way through the narrow streets of Friedland, and then fanned out into the plain beyond.

On the French side, opposed to Bennigsen was first of all General Oudinot, a tall, dark, handsome man in uniform, who, though forty, was still slender, erect, and full of grace, a commander of men. His high forehead; his eyes half-closed under eyebrows that were slightly raised; his brown eyes, which constantly shifted and wandered; his serious mien—a smile was rare and fleeting though gracious—all gave him in repose the air of a dreamer. But in action he was impetuous and formidable. Napoleon had christened his division la colonne infernale.

Oudinot's immediate superior was Marshal Lannes, also present, a man of middling height, not much taller than Napoleon; a Gascon, that is to say, lively, excitable, cool only in danger; daring in action; loyal in peace, but in war artful, sly, insatiate of wiles. Add to these a quality less typically Gascon: a desire to be better. As an obscure, youthful lieutenant he had demonstrated a desire to learn; as a marshal of France in times of peace he still at night studied his profession. He was a growing man.

Also opposed to General Bennigsen was General Grouchy, in the absence of Murat commander-in-chief of the French cavalry, a sensitive, well-bred soldier of an old noble family, a failure in his own opinion. His misfortune (in part) was this: though he had fought capably in all the wars of the Revolution and the Empire from 1792 to 1807, he had never fought under the eyes of Napoleon, never had his merit recognized. Thus, in 1793, when Bonaparte, a thin, energetic artillery captain of twenty-four, was serving effectively at the siege of Toulon, Grouchy, three years older, was general of a brigade in the Vendée, and was just being dismissed from the army for having once been a noble. In 1796, when Bonaparte was offered command of the Army of Italy, Grouchy, now general of a division, was offered the inspectorship of the cavalry of the Army of Italy. Bonaparte accepted; Grouchy refused to serve under an unknown of so slight a reputation. In the ensuing campaign Bonaparte, knowing the exhilaration of swift successful action and of swifter thought, defeated army after army, swept to victory and to glory; Grouchy, faithful and industrious chief of staff of the stagnant Army of the North, cursed himself for rejecting the inspectorship, bit his nails in envy. The campaign in Italy over, Bonaparte left with an army for adventures in Egypt; Grouchy, now too late, was transferred to Italy, where he cunningly intrigued the abdication of the King of Savoy, and later led a brilliant rear-guard action against the Austrians, in which he was wounded and taken prisoner. Bonaparte, back from Egypt, overthrew the French Republic, became First Consul, dictator of France; Grouchy remained general of a division. In 1800 Bonaparte crossed the St. Bernard, entered into Italy, defeated the Austrians at Marengo; Grouchy, on his return to France, fought brilliantly in this campaign, not, however, in Italy, but under Moreau at Hohenlinden. In 1805 Bonaparte, now Emperor Napoleon I, crowned in the presence of the Pope, again fought the Austrians, smashed them at Austerlitz; Grouchy, still general of a division, nearing forty, was away from the field observing another Austrian force.

During these years, furthermore, Grouchy saw others, in his opinion less worthy than he, promoted over him. Grouchy, disgusted, was ready to quit. But Napoleon, ever a master in kindling the ambition of men, graciously granted his request that his son Alphonse Grouchy be admitted to the imperial military school; and this grant led Grouchy to hope for further favors. But in the succeeding campaign against Prussia, Grouchy's luck again held: at the Battle of Auerstädt he was in the reserve; at Prenzlau, where Grouchy performed brilliantly, Napoleon was not present; and in regard to the actions preceding Eylau, the official reports did not deign to mention the activity and bravery of his division. Napoleon, however, still was gracious, markedly so after Prenzlau; Grouchy still was hopeful; and at Friedland an independent cavalry command was his opportunity.

These then were the men the Russian General Bennigsen had against him—Oudinot, Lannes, and Grouchy. And against him, also he had the little French infantryman, tough, sinewy, the best marcher in Europe, on offense a terrific fighter,

The task of Lannes, who was in charge, was to withstand with ten thousand men the attacks of forty-six thousand until reinforcements and Napoleon should arrive. How to do it was the problem. If he massed his men in an ordinary line of battle, several men deep, his line would not be long enough to cover the entire front of the line of the Russians, who would outflank him on both sides. But if he spread his ten thousand men out along the four-mile front, his line would be thin, and the Russians could break through the center, or indeed at every point. What Lannes did was this. On the Friedland plain just in front of the semicircular forest, from Sortlack on the river to the right of Posthenen in his center and then part way to Henrichsdorff on his left, he stretched a long, thin line of sharpshooters, who lay in the long grass, or crouched in the grain, and kept up a steady musket fire on the Russians forming on the plain. Then, screening his movements behind that curtain of fire and smoke and behind the slight irregularities of the ground, the height of the grain, the trees of the forest, he maneuvered a few mobile columns of infantry and cavalry, revealing them when he wished to give an impression of strength, concealing them when he chose, and hurrying them to any point opposite which the Russians were massing.

When the battle opened, about four in the morning, Grouchy and his cavalry were by Sortlack, at the edge of the forest, guarding the French right flank. Oudinot and his grenadiers were in the forest between Sortlack and Posthenen. But as the Russians moved across the river into the plain, Lannes perceived their cavalry massing over by Henrichsdorff, preparing to turn his left flank. From Sortlack to Henrichsdorff is nearly four miles. Grouchy, therefore, on orders from Lannes, with about two to three thousand men, hurried along the forest, galloped across the plain, barely arrived in time. Already the Russians occupied Henrichsdorff, and were preparing to detach troops in the rear of the French. Grouchy, however, checked their advance, and about seven o'clock, with reinforcements, drove the Russians out of Henrichsdorff and beyond. Meanwhile, the Russian divisions continued to cross the Alle. By nine o'clock most were on the Friedland side. Part of their infantry then marched up the river, trying to turn the French right at Sortlack. Lannes brought up troops; Grouchy hastened over, or was already there; Oudinot's division sacrificed itself; but the Russians continued to advance.

At the same time the Russian cavalry, now reinforced, nearly surrounded the French at Henrichsdorff and threatened the town. Again Grouchy hurried from Sortlack, reformed the fleeing French cavalry, charged, fell back, reformed, and charged again; fell back, reformed, and charged again; charged fifteen times until the lost ground was finally recovered.

But it was obvious that despite the energy of the leaders, despite the stubborn defense of the troops, the French must give way unless aid came. Reinforcements, to be sure, had been arriving all morning; Lannes now had twenty-nine thousand; but they were not enough, and he dispatched courier after courier with appeals to Napoleon. The first messenger was an aide-de-camp, Marbot, a boyish captain of twenty-five, round and smooth of face, a trustworthy youth. Marbot first tried the road, but finding it thronged with troops hastening to Lannes, he took to the fields and cross-country galloped the fifteen miles to Eylau. Upon his arrival he joined Napoleon, now a mature man of thirty-seven, short, plump, and energetic. The Emperor was on horseback and, with Marbot riding beside him, set off for Friedland at a gallop. Even while galloping, however, he had Marbot explain what had occurred on the battlefield.

The report finished, Napoleon said smilingly to Marbot: "Do you have a good memory?"

"Passable, Sire."

"Well then, what anniversary is today, June 14?"

"That of Marengo."

"Yes, yes," replied Napoleon, "that of Marengo and I shall beat the Russians as I beat the Austrians." And saying this, he continued his gallop.

As Napoleon approached the troops on the road, they stood aside, and cheered him as he rode by. And the Emperor, skilled at lifting the spirits of those who are going into battle, did not cease to tell them: "Today is a happy day, the anniversary of Marengo." And the troops would close in after him, continuing to advance rapidly.

At the end of his fifteen-mile gallop on this hot June day, Napoleon reached the Friedland forest about noon. The wounded from Oudinot's division were passing: "Hurry," they said, "to the aid of our comrades. The Russians are stronger at this moment." And Oudinot himself, his uniform riddled with shot, and his horse streaming blood, exclaimed: "Hurry, Sire, my grenadiers can do no more. But give me a reinforcement and I will throw all the Russians into the water." Oudinot received a reinforcement, which checked the Russian attack. Shortly afterwards Napoleon ordered the French soldiers to rest while he considered what he should do.

The arrival of Napoleon was not at once perceived by the Russians; but an English officer, Colonel Hutchinson, stationed in a church tower at Friedland, gazing across the plain, past the forest, and down the road which Napoleon had used, observed the coming of long columns of French soldiers, numbered in the tens of thousands. These continued to arrive during the late morning and afternoon, until the forest was "thronged by battalions which advanced upon the edge, and there reposed." From the town of Friedland, and in the late afternoon, the masses appeared "through the interstices of the trees and the partial interruption of the wood of enormous power and extensive depth" like dark clouds in a gathering storm. From the plain before Friedland "the horizon seemed to be bound by a deep girdle of glittering steel."

While the French clung thus to the edge of the forest, the Russians stood exposed in the plain, facing the forest. In a fairly straight line parallel to the Alle River, the Russian position reached from the forest by Sortlack on the left, across the plain back of Friedland, across the Mill Stream and the plain beyond it, nearly to the forest on the right. The Mill Stream cut the Russian forces in two, making difficult the reinforcement of the Russian left by the center and right. The river behind them, the Alle, was deep and flowed between precipitous banks thirty to forty feet high. The only exit in case of disaster led through the narrow streets of Friedland and over the inflammable town and pontoon bridges.

Despite these circumstances and despite the French reinforcements, of which he knew, Bennigsen took no action. Indeed, in his position there was little he could do. He could not advance—the French were too strong. Nor could he retreat. It had taken him five hours to get his troops across the river onto the plain; it would take nearly that long to get them back. And in the meanwhile, the French with their immense power could fall upon his retreating columns and crush them. Bennigsen could only remain in the field and hope that the French would not attack; then with darkness he might slip away. But the decision no longer lay with him. Events were now beyond his control. His fate and that of his army depended on the decision of Bonaparte. And through the hot summer afternoon, while the sun moved from overhead to the forest in the west, the Russians stood in the plain, pending that decision.


Excerpted from Three Napoleonic Battles by Harold T. Parker. Copyright © 1988 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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