3) Taming the Bear

JeanLannescrop (1)In the aftermath of the harrowing Battle of Eylau, Napoleon established a new headquarters in Osterode and set about reorganizing the army and consolidating his position in preparation for a spring offensive. In May, French forces repulsed an Allied effort to relieve Danzig and the city finally surrendered, securing the French rear and offering up valuable supplies. Danzig would now replace Thorn as the French base. To the east at Heilsberg, however, the Russians had constructed a vast fortified camp with a complex series of interconnected redoubts. Within the security of its walls the Allied high command had spent the winter planning a major offensive in which Bennigsen was to drive westward across the Passarge River while another army of some 60,000 men drove east from Swedish Pomerania against the French rear. To succeed, the plan called upon Bennigsen to seize the initiative, which he planned to accomplish by cutting off and destroying an isolated French corps (Ney’s) on the east bank of the Passarge.

On 5 June 1807, with a force of some 85,000 men supported by another 24,000 under Lestocq, the Russian commander set the plan in motion, sending Lestocq against Bernadotte at Braunberg and ordering six columns forward in a pincer movement designed to prevent Ney from escaping back across the river. Efforts to coordinate with Lestocq were bungled, however, and while the attack inflicted heavy losses, Ney managed to reach the safety of the west bank of the river, where he quickly prepared to contest the enemy’s passage. His plan for a decisive blow having failed, Bennigsen abandoned his offensive altogether and fell back upon the fortified camp at Heilsberg, leaving a rearguard under Bagration on the far side of the Alle River.

On the morning of the 9th, a French counteroffensive began in earnest with the advance of some 13,000 French cavalry upon Guttstadt, where Bagration made a determined fight before crossing to the east bank of the Alle and burning the bridges behind him. Keeping part of his force in Guttstadt, Napoleon sent three corps (Murat, Soult, and Lannes) up the west bank of the river with orders to fix the Russian main body at Heilsberg. Though an initial assault on the Russian fort was repulsed with considerable losses, soon the bulk of the Grand Army began arriving in front of the enemy stronghold in a steady stream, and at the prospect of being surrounded Bennigsen slipped away on the night of the 11th, falling back upon Bartenstein.

Confident that at some point the Russians would be forced to turn and fight to cover their base, Napoleon proceeded north in the direction of Konigsberg and on the 13th reached Eylau, where partially buried corpses and wreckage still littered the fields, a grisly reminder of the recent battle. Here, learning that Bennigsen was still east of the Alle, he sent Lannes toward Friedland to establish contact and directed Murat north to invest Konigsberg. The bulk of his forces remained poised between the two objectives, ready to move against either one as the opportunity offered. Bennigsen, meanwhile, apparently unaware that the French had stolen a march on him, raced to join Lestocq before Konigsberg. On the afternoon of the 13th, arriving on the east bank of the Alle opposite Friedland he sent his forwardmost units across the river to a position immediately west of the town, where they made contact with Lannes’ vanguard shortly after midnight. At this point, the Russian commander thought to check the isolated French corps and continue his withdrawal toward Konigsberg along a highway to the north. An existing road bridge was supplemented by three pontoon bridges, and throughout the night the army streamed across, creating a considerable traffic jam in the town itself. Situated on a narrow strip of land between the river and a substantial stream, Friedland allowed very little room to maneuver and was quickly overwhelmed by masses of arriving soldiers.

From his vantage point west of the town, Lannes recognized the enemy’s predicament and moved quickly to bottle up the Russian movement, drawing out his forces in a line running from the Forest of Sortlack on his right to the main road to Konigsberg on his left. With only 26,000 men on hand to contain an enemy force of some 60,000, his own line would of necessity be precariously thin, but if he could prevent Bennigsen from breaking out of his bridgehead long enough for the rest of the army to arrive, the Russians would be in deep trouble.


Preliminary skirmishing in front of the French position at Posthenen, immediately west of Friedland, began well before dawn and quickly escalated into a general engagement as the sky grew light. By 6 a.m. a Russian cavalry attack had driven the French out of nearby Heinrichsdorf, opening the road to Konigsberg, but French horsemen under Grouchy soon regained the position to put the cork back in the bottle. Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the field, Russian infantry advanced on the Forest of Sortlack only to be repeatedly driven back in close quarters fighting among the trees.

By nine o’clock Bennigsen had sufficient forces in place to launch a general advance, pressing the French back upon Posthenen and again opening the road to Konigsberg. Again the French lines held, however, and again Grouchy’s cavalry retook Heinrichsdorf, at which point the Russian commander made a fateful decision; with a full twelve hours of daylight remaining (the summer solstice was only a week away), he opted to go on the defensive and rest his weary troops. In all probability his idea was to await nightfall and withdraw under cover of darkness, continuing toward Konigsberg along a northerly route. Such a plan presumed, of course, that the enemy would be content to while away the long summer day in a desultory artillery exchange, a notion scarcely supported by recent experience. Perhaps he assumed that Napoleon was preoccupied with his own advance on Konigsberg. Perhaps he had simply run out of ideas.

In any case, about noon Napoleon arrived at Posthenen with two fresh corps, and could scarcely believe his good fortune. Here lay Bennigsen’s entire army with its back to the Alle and virtually no room to maneuver. Wasting no time, he brought his reinforcements into line, with Lannes’ corps in the center, Mortier on the left, and Ney on the right. His battle plan called for Mortier to demonstrate against Bennigsen’s right, while Ney formed his divisions in column behind the cover of the Sortlack Forest and rolled up the enemy left. Throughout the afternoon the various units moved into position while Russian cavalry made a series of probes on each flank. At 5 p.m., the French dispositions complete, a twenty-gun battery thundered out three salvos to signal the advance.

Pushing out of the woods on the French right, Ney’s initial attack drove much of the Russian flank guard into an isolated pocket along the river, where they had little choice but to attempt to swim to the safety of the opposite shore. Meanwhile, the attacking columns swung north, rounding an acute loop in the river to advance directly on Friedland. At this point, moving forward along a narrow front, Ney’s troops came under concentrated artillery fire and were stopped in their tracks, then driven off in confusion by a well-timed cavalry charge. Moving forward to fill the void thus created, a fresh infantry division under General Dupont came forward with twin batteries of fifteen guns each. Combined in a single array and positioned some 120 yards from the Russian lines, they delivered a well-orchestrated barrage of canister shot, blowing the Russians back as if by a sudden wind. The survivors were soon fleeing into Friedland, where conditions were quickly verging on chaos.

To this mounting crisis, Bennigsen responded by ordering the Russian Imperial Guard to repel Dupont while the Guard cavalry swept down on the French guns. Here again, however, the concentrated firepower of the guns proved decisive as two quick volleys blasted the oncoming charge to pieces. (The tactical use of massed cannon in front-line action would originate here.) Meanwhile, Dupont drove the Russian Guard back at the point of the bayonet, adding a final note of panic to a scene already grown desperate in the town itself. Crowding toward the river crossings, the Russians would now pay the price for their commander’s error as French gunners zeroed in on the bridges, setting them afire and sealing the fate of those who had yet to cross. By 7 p.m., in desperate fighting in the streets of the town, Bennigsen’s entire left flank was destroyed, his men either killed, captured or drowned as the French pressed on to the banks of the Alle.

Having realized the first phase of his battle plan, Napoleon now sent Lannes and Mortier forward against the Russian right, and in the lingering hours of daylight the bulk of Gortchakov’s corps was systematically cut off and destroyed. Of the approximately 20,000 Russians on this end of the field, a number found their way across a deep ford in the river; the rest put up a desperate fight on the river bank before attempting to swim to the opposite shore. Fought out and exhausted, with small arms fire hissing into the water about them, few would make it to safety. On the extreme flank, some 5,000 Russians managed to escape along the road to Wehlau. Retaining their organization, they made a rear-guard stand near the river, repelling an attack of Saxon cavalry before Lannes gathered his last available troops for a final charge and sent them fleeing northward. With this final action the Battle of Friedland–fought on the anniversary of the hard-won French triumph at Marengo–was over, and with it went Russian domination of eastern Europe.

The next day news of the battle prompted Lestocq to abandon Konigsberg and race eastward to join what remained of Bennigsen’s force as it fled toward the Niemen River. On the 19th, with the French closing in on Tilsit, a Russian delegation came forward to sue for peace. For Napoleon, who had set his army in motion the previous summer, the chance to bring a long and arduous campaign to an end came as a great relief, the decisive victory at Friedland serving to blot out the awful memory of Eylau. In a matter of days, an armistice was signed, and the French and Russian rulers met in an elaborate tent on a raft in the middle of the Niemen. Though no written account of the conversation was made, subsequent events would make it clear that the two autocrats agreed on a plan to divide Europe into French and Russian spheres of influence. When it was over Napoleon and Alexander had seemingly become the best of friends, and the opposing armies that had been locked in combat some ten days earlier were now called upon to parade together in a grand display of brotherhood and mutual respect.

Having thus subdued the last major continental power to hold out against him, Napoleon thought to have arrived at the threshold of a lasting peace. While he had done his best to charm Tsar Alexander, however, the French emperor proved considerably less cordial to the Prussian king and queen. Determined to humiliate Prussia still further for her duplicity during the war of the Third Coalition, Napoleon dictated crippling terms in which Prussia was to cede a vast tract of territory toward the creation of a Polish homeland to be known as the Grand Duchy of Warsaw. According to the Treaty of Tilsit, France was to make no claims on Russian territory in exchange for Russian compliance with Napoleon’s Continental System, by which all trade with England was forbidden. Another treaty was signed and kept secret, however, in which something of the nature of the private talk between the Tsar and Emperor would be revealed. By its terms, Russia was to make war on England unless the island kingdom agreed to peace under conditions favorable to France. In return, the Tsar was encouraged to seize Finland from Sweden and expand her territories southward at the expense of Turkey. A masterpiece of Machiavellian power politics, the two documents together would place all of continental Europe under French domination.