More About Eylau

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More about Eylau.

“The most difficult task that can be imposed upon an army is to enter on a second campaign, against fresh enemies, immediately after one in which its moral energies have been partially consumed. Fortunate as Napoleon’s operations against the Prussians and Saxons in the autumn of 1806 had been, they all the same came to a standstill when, in the winter, he encountered the Russians and the corps of General Lestocq, which had not previously been in action.”

General Von der Goltz (The Nation in Arms)

Battle of Eylau. By J.L. Rugendas
Battle of Eylau. By J.L. Rugendas

Having just read Christopher Summerville’s book, Napoleon’s Polish Gamble, Campaign Chronicles, Pen & Sword Books Ltd, England, 2005 (ISBN 1- 84415 – 260 – X), I thought it about time to continue the quest of striving to find the “truth” about just what really occurred during this great Napoleonic battle.

In this instance I will attempt to unravel the facts from the fiction when dealing with so – called eye witness accounts, and also try to piece together the various events that took place during the 4th – 7th February 1807, just prior to the commencement of the main engagement on the 8th February.

From the mass of feedback that I have been receiving since I first put my article dealing with Murat’s cavalry charge at Eylau on this website in 2002, I hope that this fresh appraisal of “possible” alternatives to the excepted versions of the battle will also instil people with the urge to put finger to keyboard and open the way for more debate, and – dare I say it – argument!

The Preliminaries.

After attempting unsuccessfully to outmanoeuvre the Russians between the Alle and Vistula Rivers in late January 1807, Napoleon’s advanced units finally came up with Benningsen’s lumbering columns at Bergfried on the 3rd February. However, the French were in insufficient numbers to mount a serious attack that day, and the Russians once again retire during the night.

Map supplied by Alexander Mikaberidze
Map supplied by Alexander Mikaberidze

On the 4th February Napoleon crosses the Alle in pursuit of his elusive enemy, but the Polish winter begins to bite even harder, with heavy falls of snow and a high wind slowing down his forward movement. As Petre states:

At daybreak on the 4th, the Emperor moved forward, Murat in front of the centre, Ney on the right of Jonkowo, Augereau on the left, Soult, from Bergfried, towards Mondtken. It soon appeared that Benningsen, aware not only of Soult’s presence at Bergfried, but also of the capture of Guttstadt by Guyot on the previous evening, had retreated during the night, leaving only a strong rearguard to waste Napoleon’s time in inducing him to deploy for battle. The course which he followed, in retreating northwards, was Bennigsen’s only chance of assuring his communications with Koenigsberg, which were seriously compromised by the loss of Bergfried, and Davout’s advance on Guttstadt. ((Petre. F. Loraine, Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland, 1806 – 1807, page, 154. ))

All of this constant manoeuvring by tens of thousands of men and horses must have resulted in a serious depletion of food and fodder for all three belligerents. Indeed, Thiers, whom I have reason to discount in regard to much of his propagandist writings when dealing with Napoleon’s campaigns, does state that:

On this same day, the 4th of February, the Russians halted for a moment at Wolfsdorf, at an equal distance from the Alle and the Passarge, to take some rest, and to see whether the Prussian corps of General Lestocq, which was behind, would find means to rejoin them. But that corps was still so far off that they could not wait for it, and pressed by the French, they continued their march, abandoning Guttstadt, the resources which they had collected there, the wounded, the sick, and 500 men, who were made prisoners.

Though the magazines of Guttstadt were not very considerable, they were valuable to the French, who, outstripping their convoys, had no means of subsistence but what they procured for themselves by the way.  ((Thiers. A, History of the Consulate and Empire of France, Vol. IV, page 419))

Here we must pause for a moment to look at Napoleon’s administrative system during the campaigns of 1806 – 1807.

During the Revolutionary Wars the French army transport was all civilian.  The artillery and convoy trains, together with Waggoner’s, or, as the army called them, “Four – Wheel Hussars”  ((Rogers. Colonel. H.C.B., Napoleon’s Army, page 93)) were all non-combatants. When Napoleon became Emperor in 1804 the Breidt Company became responsible for the supply of wagons, horses and drivers to the army. By bringing together the entire administrative arm of the service under one contactor, Napoleon hoped to avoid the mass corruption and greed that had plagued the army in the past. However, the Breidt Company proved to be just as susceptible to racketeering and underhanded dealings as all the rest, and the almost total breakdown in the supply of food and fodder during the Polish campaign coursed Bonaparte to eventually place all of the army’s administration under army control. But the problems involved in supplying and caring for the horses in all three armies during the Polish Campaign should be looked at in some depth.

The French, Russian and Prussian artillery, combined, numbered well over 700 guns. These, together with their limbers and caissons, would require between 5,000 – 6,000 horses in normal circumstances.  There are also the wagon trains, field forges and ambulances to consider, although the latter may not have amounted to very many in the Russian army. The Russians also travelled with a mass of small one/two horse carts, several hundred strong. One presumes that these were either used by the Cossacks to carry away their plunder, or maybe just as auxiliary transports for food and fodder? Taking all the above into account, plus the horses required for the cavalry and staffs of each army, then we arrive at the staggering total of around 40 – 50,000 horses, all of which need feeding and watering daily.

Engraving of Cossack cart (Dave Leonard)
Engraving of Cossack cart (Dave Leonard)

Paul Dawson, in his paper, Artillery Train of the Guard: 1800 – 1815, ((The Napoleonic Series, Military Subjects: Organization, Strategy & Tactics.)) gives us a vivid account of what conditions could be like for the army’s beasts of burden:

Horses, like the soldiers who depended upon them, were also subject to the rigors of disease, poor rations, and the too – often squalid living conditions of an army camp. The death toll has never been calculated, but the cost of the War in horseflesh was surely enormous. Horses were required to pull the enormous weight of the cannon and ammunition; on average, each horse pulled about 700 pounds. Each gun in a battery used two six – horse teams; one team pulled a limber that towed the gun, the other pulled a limber that towed a caisson. The large number of horses posed a logistical challenge for the artillery, because they had to be fed, maintained, and replaced when worn out or injured. Artillery horses were generally selected second from the pool of high quality animals; the cavalry mounts were the best horses. The life expectancy of an artillery horse was under eight months. They suffered from disease, exhaustion from long marches (typically 16 miles in 10 hours), and battle injuries. The capacity of a healthy horse to pull a load was affected by a number of factors. Chief among these was the nature of the surface over which the load was being hauled. A single horse could pull 3,000 pounds 20 to 23 miles a day over a hard – paved road. Gassendi ((Gassendi. J.B., Aide Memoire, Vol. 2. 1819, page 925 – 927)) noted that on a road a convoy of artillery could cover 0.94 miles in roughly an hour, and that a horse carrying 75.6 kg and drawing 315 kg could travel on average 20 miles a day. The weight dropped to 1,900 pounds over a compacted earthen road, and went down to 1,100 pounds over rough ground. The pulling ability was further reduced by one – half if a horse carried a rider on its back. Finally, as the number of horses in a team increased, the pulling capacity of each horse was further reduced. A horse in a team of six had only seven – ninths the pulling capacity it would have in a team of two. The goal was that each horse’s share of the load should be no more than 700 pounds. This was less than what a healthy horse, even carrying a rider and hitched into a team of six, could pull, but it furnished a safety factor that allowed for fatigue and losses.

Having consulted various veterinarians and cavalry experts, I herewith give a brief list of some of the ailments to which horses are prone.

  • Bruised Soles: The area on the sole of the hoof especially the toe callus, around the white line, or even on the hoof wall and around the coronet band. This can occur when removing a horse shoe.
  • Horse Thrush: Fungal infection around the frogs and heel bulb, which can attack the tissue at the back of the hoof. Correct feeding is very important.
  • Mud Fever/Cracked Heel: Occurs mainly in winter and early spring. Affects the lower leg and causes lameness.
  • Laminitis: Inflammation of the lamina in the horses hoof (front hooves more commonly affected) so that it is unable to bear any weight on its feet. This can be life threatening.
  • Ringworm: Fungal infection of the skin that can spread by direct or indirect contact. Strict hygiene is essential.
  • Rain Scald: Caused by a softening of the skin following prolonged exposure to saturation from rain and snow.
  • Common Cold: Horses that are kept in close proximity with other horses from different areas of the country.
  • Colic: Abdominal pain, possibly gut or other organ within the abdomen. Caused by a number of factors including bad diet.
  • Saddle Sores: Chaffing caused by ill – fitting or incorrectly adjusted saddles and fittings.
  • Collar Chaffing: Caused by wet or split leather horse collars worn over a long period.

Under the conditions that prevailed prior to, and during the course of the Battle of Eylau, I consider that, with the roads frozen solid, and thick snow covering the whole landscape, not only the artillery horses, but also the cavalry mounts, would have been in a deplorable condition. The tiring effect of labouring over ice and snow seem to give added weight to my theory that not all was as it appears concerning the traditionally accepted versions of the battle.

We may be sure that Napoleon gave much thought to the provisioning of his forces during the campaign, and I herewith give a detailed account of the preparations undertaken before the opening of the Polish campaign taken from Colonel H.C.B.Rogers, Napoleon’s Army:

Napoleon imposed an enormous war contribution on Prussia after his victories of 1806. Most of it he could not hope to realise in cash, but he levied supplies and charged their costs against the money he was owed. He paid for manufactured articles in the same way; e.g. uniforms made at Hamburg, Magdeburg, Leipzig, and Berlin; saddles made in Berlin and other places; and boots made at a number of German towns.

Napoleon regarded boots as particularly important, and he issued a written order in 1806 that, ‘Every detachment coming from Paris and Boulogne should start with each man having two pairs of shoes in his knapsack, besides those he is wearing. At Mayence they will receive another pair to replace the shoes worn on the march. At Magdeburg they will receive a new pair to replace those worn on the march from Mayence to Magdeburg; so every man should reach his unit with a pair of shoes on his feet and a pair in his knapsack.’ Yet in spite of these detailed orders, soldiers were frequently in distress for lack of a pair of serviceable shoes. The shocking Polish roads were probably largely responsible.

The Polish campaign is of particular interest in showing how Napoleon planned his supply in a country lacking resources. Davout’s corps was due to reach Posen on 9th November 1806. Napoleon had selected this neighbourhood for his concentration area, and he ordered Davout to construct enormous bakeries to feed the whole army. In addition, supplies of all kinds were directed to Posen. Pushing on ahead, Davout captured the small fort of Linceya on 24th November. Linceya was about 70 miles due west of Warsaw and surrounded by marches. There a great advanced magazine was established with immense quantities of stores and ammunition.

By January 1807 the six French army corps were deployed over a line 150 miles long, varying from about 10 to 100 miles east of the Vistula. A supply depot was established for each corps, and all but one of these were near or behind the Vistula. They were at Marienwerder for Bernadotte, at Thorn for Ney, at Plock for Soult, at Wyszogrod and Lowicz for Augereau, at Pultusk for Davout, and Warsaw for Lannes.That there might be no obstacle to the evacuation of that country should His Majesty see fit to order it.’ Ney, Bernadotte, and Soult, whose corps were farthest from the Vistula, were allowed to have small intermediate depots. Each corps, except Bernadotte’s, was given a concentration point in case their siting complied as far as possible with Napoleon’s wish, ‘not to have any encumbrances on the right bank of the Vistula, so the enemy should take the offensive. At each of these depots every sort of supply was collected and workshops were established for the repair of ordnance, clothes, and horse harness. Bakeries produced not only bread for current consumption, but also large quantities of biscuits as a ration reserve.  ((Rogers. Colonel. H.C.B., Napoleon’s Army, page 99 – 100. See also Petre. F.Loraine. Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland, 1806 – 1807, page 17 – 29. There is a very interesting little aside here from Kellerman’s report as commander of the Army of the Reserve who was responsible for despatching each detachment of 150 infantry or 50 cavalry onto the main French field army in Poland, ‘Among his many troubles were sore backs among the horses, the result of neglect. He proposes to cashier one sub – lieutenant who produced 32 horses with sore backs out of a detachment of 47.’ Page 19. All of this “before” these horses had become involved in the campaign proper!))

As we can see from the above, all of this gathering, baking and repairing seemed to cover most situations; however, it was not a question of having food and fodder stockpiled that created the problem, it was its distribution that was seriously at fault.

Much of the French logistical planning was based on self –sufficiency, which, in turn, had become one of the basic components of their military success. The Revolutionary armies of France broke away from the old eighteenth century methods of supply, which had used vast slow moving convoys of wagons, the speed of which had dictated the pace of troop movements. The Prussian army, for example, just prior to the Battle of Valmy (20th September 1792), would pause their march until six days’ rations of bread had been baked and then loaded onto their wagon train. They would then commence marching again until the wagons were empty, stopping once again to bake more bread.  ((Rogers. Colonel. H.C.B., Napoleon’s Army, page 97)) The French had done away with all of this, and had adopted a policy of living off the land, using their own initiative in foraging for food and fodder, which, in turn, lead to the wide – scale plundering of the area passed through by their armies. In Poland, with its sparsely populated countryside and scattered villages, the problems of supply became acute. As Napoleon himself had to admit, on the 2nd February 1807 when he wrote to Comte Pierre Antoine Drau, later to become the Intendant General of the Grand Army, ‘Circumstances have forced me to return to the system of depots.’  ((Rogers. Colonel. H.C.B., Napoleon’s Army, page 99.))

This depot system was not only to prove totally inadequate in supplying the needs of the army, but also subject to the same difficulties that plagued everything else during the Polish campaign, namely the deplorable state of the roads and terrible weather conditions. These facts, probably above all else, make the excepted descriptions of the Battle of Eylau, and in particular Murat’s great cavalry charge, not only highly unlikely but totally different from what we have come to take for granted. ((I feel that it is important to quote the food consumption estimates that were given for the 1812 Russian Campaign herewith. I have halved the number of horses given in the original extract to allow for the smaller size of the armies operating in Poland in 1807. “Horses for cavalry, staff, regimental baggage, artillery, ammunition and commissariat – say 70,000. Oats – each horse would require on average 8 lbs per day, total per week 4,200,000 lbs. Hay – for each horse 12 lbs per day, total per week 6,300,000 lbs. Now all of this requires carriage. Supposing the magazines are 50 miles in the rear, and that each horse goes 100 miles per week, it would require for transport of ‘food only’ for the army, 50,000 extra horses. This number must also be fed and therefore require a further 2,300 horses to carry their food plus their own. Oats at 8 lbs per day for each horse totals 4,350,000 lbs per week, making a grand total of 22,150,000 lbs per week.” Otto von Pivka, The Armies of 1812. Page 160. The extract is taken from “A view of the French Campaign in Russia in 1812,” published in Swansea, Wales, in 1813.))

February 4th – 6th.

Map supplied by Alexander Mikaberidze
Map supplied by Alexander Mikaberidze

After abandoning Bergfried during the night and early morning of 4th February, Bennigsen’s main army fell back northward in three columns commanded by Sacken, Gallitzin and Tutchkow respectively, towards Wolfsdorf and Arensdorf. They were followed by the rearguard, commanded by General Bagration, also in three columns, with general Bagavout on the right, general Markow in the centre, and general Barclay de Tolly on the left. According to Petre they were followed and harassed all day by Ney, Murat, and Soult. ((Petre. F. Loraine, Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland, 1806 – 1807, page 154)) We must assume that the troops doing the harassing were cavalry, since it is hard to imagine the French infantry being able to keep up the pace, given the state of the roads and the weather. Here, once again, and I have to keep labouring this point, with the cavalry in constant movement for days “before” the decisive battle was fought, one has to come to the conclusion that the horses and men must have been in a terrible state upon reaching the Eylau battlefield.

Map supplied by Alexander Mikaberidze
Map supplied by Alexander Mikaberidze

Ney’s light cavalry clashed with elements of Bagavout’s column at Waltersmühl, causing Bagration to send reinforcements to Bagavout’s aid, and a constant running combat was kept up until nightfall. Meanwhile Murat had advanced to Deppen, driving the Russians before him. Petre does not say exactly who these Russian’s were attached too, but they must have been mounted troops because he states that they were driven back after a cavalry combat. (( Ibid, page 154)) Soult (cavalry?) also kept his sword in the retiring Russian’s backs pushing on towards Ankendorf and Alt Garschen, while Davout corps followed Soult, arriving by nightfall at Rosengarten. Augereau’s corps bivouacked at Pupkiam, in rear of Murat.  (( Petre. F.Loraine. Napoleon’s Polish Campaign, 1806 – 1807, page 154))

While the Russian’s were retiring, the remnants of what was left of the Prussian army under the capable command of General Anton Lestocq, and numbering approximately 10,000 of all arms (including a Russian infantry regiment), were also falling back hoping to join up with Bennigsen’s army. However, owing to the more circuitous route his forces had to negotiate in order to avoid being cut off and destroyed by the French corps of Marshal Ney, Lestocq failed to make contact with the Russian’s who, on the morning of the 5th February, had marched through Arensdorf towards Burgerswalde.

Also on the 5th Ney’s corps butts into Lestocq’s Prussians at Waltersdorf. The French drive the Prussians back, and both sides suffer heavy casualties; but this was only Lestocq’s rearguard, and the main Prussian column has fallen back in good order to Wursen. While this action was being fought, Benningsen had sent a combined force of all arms to hold the town of Heilsberg on the Alle River, which protected his left flank, as the Russian’s fell back, finally taking up a position, which allowed the army a few hours rest, at Frauendorf.  (( Ibid, page 156))

Soult’s corps had reached Freymarkt, marching through Wolfsdorf and Arensdorf, and had managed to push two battalions of infantry and his light cavalry a couple of miles further along the road. Meanwhile Murat and his bedraggled cavalry had also reached Freymarkt.  ((Ibid, page 156))

A detachment of cavalry under General Marulaz had been sent ahead by Marshal Davout to take possession of Heilsberg having heard that the Russians had pulled out of the town. Marulaz at once commandeered the substantial magazine that had been deposited in the town, only to have the Russian’s, upon learning how small the French force was, returning in force. Marulaz beat a hasty retreat across the Alle River where he was joined by the rest of his brigade, but Russian artillery soon forced him to fall back once again as far as Reichenberg.  ((Rogers. Colonel. H.C.B. Napoleon’s Army, page 171))

Davout’s III corps arrived at Guttstadt on the 5th February, pushing back the Russian rearguard. His 2nd Division, under General Friant, made contact with the division of General Saint – Hilaire’s of Soults VI Corps. The next day Davout was ordered to direct the movements of both corps; the 2nd Division of the III Corps, commanded by General Morand, led the way, advancing towards Heilsberg. From information received Davout was informed that the Russian’s were holding the left bank of the Alle River, now having burnt all the bridges. As Davout rode forward with Morand to make a personal reconnaissance he was greeted by artillery fire from the Russian light batteries. Morand’s leading brigade was thrown into the attack, ‘The half battalion of the 51st Line Infantry Regiment crossed the river by a partly burnt bridge and advanced towards the town gate. It was followed by the 13th Light Infantry Regiment, which formed a bridgehead, whilst the 17th Line Infantry Regiment occupied a suburb on the near side of the river. In the face of this vigorous attack the Russian’s retreated, just as the 2nd Division came into sight on the left bank of the Alle. Marulaz, followed by the two divisions, set off in pursuit. The 3rd Division did not arrive till the action was over.’  ((Ibid, page 171 –  172)) The light cavalry brigade of General Dorosnel, on Davout’s left, kept in contact with Soult’s corps, now marching on Landsberg, with Murat’s sorry lot still out in front.

The Combat at Hoff, 6th February.

More artistic propaganda. The Combat at Hoff. By G. Neymark
More artistic propaganda. The Combat at Hoff. By G. Neymark

Christopher Summerville, quoting from A.H. Atteridge, Murat’s biographer, informs us that:

‘Murat had nothing but his horsemen and light artillery in hand; but a few miles away the corps of Soult and Augereau, under the emperor’s personal command, were coming up in a long marching column. It would have been common prudence to content himself with merely skirmishing with the enemy, and keeping them under observation till the infantry and field batteries were ready to come into action. But this was not Murat’s way. For him “to see the enemy and to charge him, was the same thing.” Reckless of the force opposed to him and the strong position it held, he flung his horsemen into action. Even before his main body had come up, his advance guard, formed of Colbert’s dragoon regiments, were sent struggling through the thawing marshes [sic] along the brook, and launched upon the enemy in a reckless charge, from which it came back with many empty saddles…’  ((Summerville. Christopher, Napoleon’s Polish Gamble, Eylau & Friedland 1807, page 66 – 67 ))

Well, for a start, the “thawing marshes” cause us the first problem with Murat’s precursor to Eylau. All authorities studied by Petre confirm that between the 1st and 10th of February 1807 there was only frost and snow. No mention of a thaw is made until the 10th as noted by the surgeon Larrey.

The Russian rearguard, for that is what Murat came up against at Hoff, was commanded by General Barclay de Tolly (who was acting under the orders of the overall rearguard commander, General Bagration), and consisted of 4 infantry regiments, 3 cavalry regiments, 2 regiments of Cossacks, and a horse artillery battery. ((Petre. F.Loraine, Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland, 1806 – 1807, page  157 ))

The details concerning Hoff suffer from the same, but to a lesser extent, lack of information obtainable from Russian sources as does the battle of Eylau – there are very few available. Petre makes the mistake of relying too heavily on General Sir Robert Wilson’ works, Remarks on the Russian Army, which, unfortunately, although being quite interesting in regard to the operations carried out by the Russian’s during the 1807 Polish campaign, are not reliable when it comes to battlefields and unit details. Indeed, the Duke of Wellington himself, who knew Wilson, called him, ‘A very slippery fellow,’ therefore care should be taken when studying the facts of both Hoff and Eylau as given by Petre when quoting from Wilson.

The battlefield of Hoff. (Now Dwόrzno) Map supplied by Alexander Mikaberidze
The battlefield of Hoff. (Now Dwόrzno) Map supplied by Alexander Mikaberidze

The position taken up by the Russian’s at Hoff is also the subject of controversy. Since Petre’s map of the campaign does not show the road crossing a river in this area, then it must have been no more than a stream, which was passable by a bridge. Why the Russian’s did not destroy this crossing after they had themselves passed over is unclear and quite out of character when we consider that they had destroyed the bridges at Hielsberg? Also, if the Alle River was iced over, then we can be sure that the streams would also be in the same condition, maybe even frozen enough to allow for the passage of troops?  ((Dumas (xvii. 346) says Vivier was to ford (“passer à gué) the river. Wilson (p. 89) says: “The Alle was long frozen, but impassable on account of the snow that rested on its bed.” (Should read, surface). What Vivier had to ford was not water but soft, deep snow. (Quoted in Petre. F.Loraine, Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland, 1806 – 1807, footnote, page 152))) Indeed, one fails to see how any cavalry squadrons/regiments could get across a single (narrow?) wooden bridge, possibly only in column of two’s or four’s, without being swept away by artillery and musket fire before they had time to deploy on the other side. Therefore it is possible that the stream was frozen hard, enabling the French to cross on a wider front?

Dr Alexander Mikaberidze, quoting from Mikhailovsky Danilevsky’s account of the engagement at Hoff states:

Barclay de Tolly deployed his forces in the following order: two squadrons of Izumsk Hussar Regiment under Dorokhov and two guns of the horse artillery under Lieutenant Sukhozanet at the bridge in front of Hof; Oliviopol Hussars, 20th Jagers, Kostroma Musketeers in second line. On the right flank, the 1st Jagers was deployed in the woods, and the 3rd Jagers was on the left. The 20th Jager were later moved to the left flank to support the 3rd Jager. There were also Cossack regiments but there is no indication of where they were deployed.

As the French approached the bridge, the Russian horse battery opened [with] canister fire, but it was soon suppressed by the French artillery. The French cavalry soon attacked and Dorokhov counterattacked with his hussars and Cossacks. Simultaneously, [the] Oliviopol Hussars advanced without Barclay’s orders, but were badly mauled by the French. They fell back on the Izumsk squadrons and spread confusion among them as well. Dorokhov was wounded. As the Russian hussars were routed, the French cavalry charged the Kostroma Regiment under Prince Sherbatov. The Russians repulsed three charges, giving the Izumska and Oliviopol Hussars time to rally. They drove the French dragoons back (Mikhailovsky does not indicate who these troops were), but encountered newly arrived French cuirassiers, who hammered the hussars and cut through the Kostroma Regiment. Barclay de Tolly reported, “I had the misfortune to witness the complete annihilation of this excellent unit.” The French captured the regimental guns and all the flags except one, which was rescued by Junker (?) Tomilovsky.

Meantime, on the right flank, the 1st Jager was surrounded and virtually wiped out. On the left flank, the 3rd and 20th Jager “were retreating in good order.”

Barclay de Tolly rallied his forces behind Hof, where he was reinforced by Major General Prince Dolgorukov with five battalions. He ordered Dolgoruky (sic) to halt the French while Barclay himself moved with the 3rd and 20th Jager to the left flank to prevent the French flanking attack. The fighting continued for some time and, as darkness fell on the battlefield, Barclay received reinforcements [from] His Majesty [Emperor’s] Cuirassier and Military Order [Ordenskii] Regiments. ((Alexander Mikhailovsky Danilevsky, Opisanie vtoroi voini Imperatora Aleksandra’s Napoleonom v 1806 – 1807 godakh [Description of the Second War of Emperor Alexander against Napoleon in 1806 -1807] (St Petersburg, 1846), page 77 – 83. Quoted in Alexander Mikaberidze, Napoleonic Series Archive 2003.))

As will be noted below, there is a problem with which bridge Danilevsky is talking about. If, as he states, the two guns of the horse artillery and the two squadrons of the Izumsk Hussars were, “at the bridge in front of Hof,” then that would place them at bridge number 1 shown on the map. However we can see that a whole battery of guns are drawn up to contest the crossing of bridge number 2, and that at least four squadrons of Russian cavalry are in close support. I will deal with these and other problems later. First we must study a few of the rather scant Russian sources.

Map supplied by Alexander Mikaberidze
Map supplied by Alexander Mikaberidze

The following comments are taken from another Russian manuscript written in the late 19th century by Karpov, and so far not published:

“The rear guard was deployed behind the river[sic] – battalion of 20th Jager Regiment was at the village of Zinken, and two squadrons of Izumsk Hussars and two pieces of horse artillery, comprised [Barclay’s] advanced units. Around 3.00 p.m. the French approached [the Russian positions]. General Dorokhov reinforced the advanced units with two squadrons of hussars, but had to retreat after a brief engagement to the position where Barclay arranged his troops in the following order: Izumsk and horse artillery were posted at the bridge; Oliviopol Hussars, 20th Jager and Kostroma Musketeer Regiment were in second line. The 1st Jager Regiment occupied the nearby heights on the right flank, while the 3rd Jager, supported by the 20th Jager, was spread in the woods on the left flank.

“Having approached the [Russian] positions, the French tried to cross the bridge but were halted by the artillery fire. Napoleon moved forward his artillery and forced our horse artillery to withdraw. As the French advanced, Dorokhov counterattacked and drove them back across the bridge. The Olivipol Hussars pursued the [French] to the opposite bank but were routed and driven back [upon] the Izumsk Regiment. Yashvili’s horse artillery halted the French attack. The French cavalry then resumed its charges, routed our hussars and charged the Kostroma Regiment. This regiment repulsed three attacks and the [Russian] hussars counterattacked. However, the French cuirassiers arrived to the scene and overwhelmed the hussars and virtually annihilated the Kostroma Regiment. Only one flag was rescued by Sublieutenant [sic] Tomilov of the Izumsk Regiment. On the right flank, the 1st Jager Regiment was cut off from the main force and surrounded by enemy cavalry, and had to spread out into the forest. [On the left flank] the 3rd and 20th Jagers were also hard pressed but retreated in good order.

“Having retreated behind Hof, Barclay began deploying his troops at new positions. He was reinforced by 5 infantry battalions under Prince Dolgorukov. Barclay left him to defend the new position, while he [led?] the 3rd and 20th Jagers into bushes to halt the French flanking manoeuvre onto Landsburg. [Meantime] Dolgorukov faced superior forces and was preparing to leave the position when he was reinforced by the Military Order and His Majesty [Emperor] Cuirassier Regiments. However, the darkness fell and Napoleon recalled his attacks.

“[The Russians] suffered substantial losses at Hof, but the goal [of halting the French] was accomplished. Some 2,000 soldiers and 28 officers were killed and wounded.” ((Karpov (first name not available), Deistvia Russkikh voisk v Kampaniu 1806 i 1807 godov [Operations of the Russian Forces During the Campaigns of 1806 -1807] RGVIA, f. 846, op. 16. d.3161, II. 34b – 36b. Quoted in Alexander Mikaberidze, Napoleonic Series Archive 2003.))

Another Russian source comes from Colonel Aleksey Yermolov who commanded the horse artillery in General Bagration’s main rear guard (this is doubtful, see below).

“[Barclay de Tolly] reached the village of Hoff, which lay in view of the rest of the [Russian] army. He halted here but deployed his troops at disadvantageous positions. [The] village of Hoff is located in a valley surrounded by steep hills. [Barclay] had the village behind him and so, as the superior enemy cavalry engaged his exhausted cavalrymen, they had nowhere to go but to retreat through the narrow streets of the village.

“The infantry, which should have been deployed in the village and nearby gardens surrounded fences, was deployed by Barclay in lines in front of the village and it could not have retreat in any other way, but through the village, because of the deep snow on the plain. So, it turned out that the [French] routed our cavalry and drove it back onto the infantry and batteries. One of the batteries was captured right away. Commander of the second battery, Lieutenant Markov, opened canister fire against [its own] Olioviopol Hussar Regiment which was covering his range of fire; but he also halted the enemy [attack] and forced it back with casualties.

“The [Russian] infantry repulsed new charges, although the enemy cavalry reached the lines. [Here the text becomes a little confused “Pekhota na sei raz otrazila s tverdostiu napadenie; nepriatelskaya konnistsa pronikla do samikh eye linii”] Soon the enemy made another assault, and this time was more successful. [The] Dnepr and Kostroma Musketeer Regiments withstood the charge but they were exhausted by [by the previous marches] and did not retain formation for a long time; they were routed and, at least half of them cut down. The flags and the regimental guns were captured. Those who managed to get into the safety of the gardens, as well as the Jager regiments, suffered minor casualties.

“This action demonstrates how disastrous can be deployment of the line infantry on the open terrain, when it was necessary to find means to protect it. Barclay de Tolly was soon reinforced by five battalions under Major General Prince Dolgorukov (Vasilii Yurievich), but this force was not sufficient in the ongoing confusion, and the new battalions were routed as well. The [Russian] troops, as they retreated through narrow [streets] of Hoff, suffered from a terrible artillery fire the [French]. Fearless Barclay de Tolly disregarded the dangers and appeared everywhere [vsudu nakhodilsia sam]. However, he did not demonstrate his commanding skills [resporiaditelnost] at the battle… ((Aleksey Yermolov, Zapiski [Reflections], Moscow, 1991, page 79 – 80. Quoted in Alexander Mikaberidze, Napoleonic Series Archives  2003

All of the above Russian accounts are given verbatim. Dr Mikaberidze considers that Karpov’s writings are based on Danilevsky and Hopfner, while Yermolov was not present at Hoff, and therefore his writings were taken from other sources. Also Yermolov did not like Barclay very much, a possible reason for his criticism concerning Barclay’s deployment?))

It will be noted from the above that the Russian infantry were exhausted by their constant marching, their cavalry likewise; therefore the French must have been in a similar state. Under normal circumstances one would expect the tough soldiers of Mother Russia to withstand an arduous campaign without complaint, but as Petre says:

The troops fought in 1807 in a country whence the terror of war and famine had driven every inhabitant who could by any possibility quit it. In their flight the peasants carried with them all that was portable. What they had to leave behind they had done their best to bury beyond the reach of the approaching armies. With a commissariat of the most wretched description, unable often to supply any food, the sufferings from hunger of the Russian soldiery are easier to imagine than to describe. They could live only on what was provided by their own diligence in unearthing and robbing the hidden stores of the inhabitants… ((Petre. F.Loraine., Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland, 1806 – 1807, page 31))

With the Russian’s grubbing – up everything they could lay their hands on for miles around, while at the same time retiring, thus reducing to some extent the distance its scanty supply system had to travel, then one wonders just what was left for the French who were constantly in pursuit?

Unravelling Hoff.

Painting depicting the French cavalry during the retreat from Moscow in 1812. A far more realistic impression of how the cavalry of both armies looked in Poland.
Painting depicting the French cavalry during the retreat from Moscow in 1812. A far more realistic impression of how the cavalry of both armies looked in Poland.

I have tried to reconstruct the action at Hoff by attempting to draw a more detailed map of the area contested, following the troops dispositions given in the Russian sources. Allowing for the many changes that have taken place over the two hundred years since the campaign was fought, and the possibility of the original maps (shown above) being subject to various interpretations, then I must submit my own efforts as also being only speculative.

Map 1.
Map 1.

My own interpretation of the initial position taken by up by the Russian rear guard in front of Hoff. I have not included any Cossack formations owing to the details of their deployment on the battlefield being difficult to determine. It would also seem that the Russian sources available either dismiss them altogether or, after mentioning that Cossack units were with the rear guard, never give any details of what they actually did.

As can be seen from the above, the initial deployment of Barclay de Tolly’s rearguard had elements under the command of General Dorokhov pushed forward across the bridge, holding the ground around the village of Zinken (now Źolędnik). Although Danilevsky states that the 20th Jager were in the second line, I think Karpov’s comments may be nearer to the truth when he says that the 20th Jager, ‘…was at the village of Zinken, and two squadrons of the Izumsk Hussars and two pieces of horse artillery, comprised [Barclay’s] advanced units.’ This is important because Karpov does not say rearguard, but only the ‘advanced units’ of Barclay’s rearguard. It would be quite natural to attempt to slow the French advance, and by contesting the village of Zinken, and therefore possibly the only clear road available, also restrict their deployment. Karpov goes on to say that General Dorokhov, after being reinforced by another two squadrons of Hussars (no mention of which regiment) was forced to retreat, after a brief engagement, to Barclay’s main position.

The Russian rearguard position is variously given in the sources as follows: The Izumsk Hussars and the horse artillery battery (the two guns posted originally near Zinken village having presumably rejoined their parent unit) at the bridge; The Oliviopol Hussars, together with the (one battalion?) 20th Jager Regiment and the Kostroma Musketeer Regiment, drawn up in a second line; The 1st Jager Regiment was posted on high ground on the right flank, while the 3rd Jager Regiment, with the (remaining battalions?) 20th Jager Regiment in support, were stationed in woods on the left flank.

Map 2.
Map 2.

My own interpretation of the opposing forces at around 3.30 p.m. All sources state that Murat’s cavalry arrived first on the field. Also Soult’s light cavalry would have been in advance of the main body of the IV Corps.

The first French units to arrive on the field were possibly the light cavalry attached to Soult’s IV Corps, followed by the light cavalry under Murat, with Colbert’s Dragoons close behind. Since none of the Russian sources name any particular division, brigade or regiment, other than the fact that they were led by Murat, then it is worth considering the possibility that, having to haul artillery pieces into action, many of the dragoons would have been dismounted, their horses being used to double the teams on the cannon and limbers. Petre states that, ‘The French skirmishers, advancing about 3.00 p.m., against the Russian left were driven back.’ ((Pete. F.Loraine, Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland 1806 – 1807, page 157)) These “skirmishers” were, in all probability, dragoons, since this type of cavalry also fought on foot. Indeed, Petre even informs us that Napoleon himself thought it better to attack with the cavalry without waiting for Soult. ((Petre. F.Loraine, Napoleons Campaign in Poland 1806 – 1807, page 158)) If this was indeed the case, then I consider that only “part” of Murat’s dragoons fought mounted, and the remaining dismounted troopers harassed the Russian position until the arrival of Soult’s infantry and d’Hautpoult’s cuirassiers.

We are now confronted with the problem of the deployment of the cavalry of the opposing armies. With deep snow covering the fields and meadows, and the possibility of a steep ravine dividing the forces at the commencement of this part of the action, then the normal formations for squadrons and regiments seem to be ruled out. Below are rough diagrams showing the “normal” formations of cavalry regiments when deployed for battle and in column of march.

My own interpretation of a cavalry squadron deployed in battle order.
My own interpretation of a cavalry squadron deployed in battle order.

I have reduced the size of the squadron in terms of troop numbers to allow for attrition during the campaign, but have still given the actual squadron frontage of 48 meters at full strength.

As one can see from the above cavalry formation, a whole regiment of four squadrons would have occupied a frontage of over 200 meters, when the spacing’s between each squadron is taken into account. Even allowing for the road being fairly clear of snow, then the deployment such as the one shown herewith would have been almost impossible to achieve with deep snow covering the whole countryside. We do know that Murat’s handling of the cavalry at Hoff was criticised by Jomini in his work, Vie de Napoleon, where he states that the French cavalry brigades were passed in succession through the defile of a marshy brook, which exposed them to defeat in detail. ((Petre. F.Loraine, Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland 1806 – 1807, page 158)) However, taking into account the argument given concerning “normal” cavalry deployment, then under the circumstances Murat probably had no other option?

My own re-construction of a cavalry trooper and his charger standing in 40 centimetres of snow (at Eylau it was reported to be a meter deep)
My own re-construction of a cavalry trooper and his charger standing in 40 centimetres of snow (at Eylau it was reported to be a meter deep)
My own interpretation showing “part” of a cavalry squadron in column of four.
My own interpretation showing “part” of a cavalry squadron in column of four.

The measurement given of 80 meters represents the whole length of a squadron when in column of four; this would mean that a regiment of four squadrons, when moving in such a formation, was strung-out over 400 meters from the head of the column to its rear.

If the cavalry was indeed restricted to moving through a defile on a single road, and then attempting to deploy onto something like a wider front, then it is small wonder that they were checked. However, let us say for the sake of argument that after the Russian’s under Dorokhov had retired from Zinken, and the French pushed forward their artillery to cover the bridge, forcing the Russian horse artillery to withdraw, the French (dragoon?) skirmishers kept the enemy occupied until Soult’s infantry arrived to take their place. Murat, realising that he had to try something, formed his light cavalry on the road and, supporting them with squadrons of dragoons who were still mounted, ordered a charge across the bridge, which could only be done in column of four. As the head of the column reached the other side it attempted to deploy but was counter attacked by the Olivipol Hussars and driven back across the bridge. The attacking Russian’s, in all probability also having to cross the bridge in column of fours were, in their turn, forced to retire, the bulk of the rearmost squadrons doubling back and causing confusion in the ranks of the Izumsk Hussars who were following behind (see above account by Karpov). After several more attempts (Karpov mentions “charges.”) the French rout the Russian Hussars (no mention of which regiment) and now Murat, allowing for the snow being trampled down considerably on both sides of the bridge, managed to form up his squadrons in something like battle order.

While the French cavalry attacks continued, Soult’s leading infantry regiments (Legrand’s division) began to arrive on the field. Once again, with everything off – road covered in deep snow, the main column of Soult’s corps must have been strung – out over a considerable distance. Also there must have been some delay in their arrival if we allow for the fact that d’Hautpoult’s cuirassier division was also coming up behind Murat’s advanced squadrons. It is very plausible to consider some of the infantry moving off the road and spreading out across the fields. By sending one or two companies off to the right and left of the road, then these could move slowly forward in line, treading down the snow and thus reducing the efforts of the main battalion formations following in their wake. If this was the case, then when d’Hautpoult’s cuirassiers finally broke the square(s) of the Kostroma Regiment (after being softened – up by French artillery and infantry fire?), the whole Russian position had already been compromised by being outflanked on both wings. The slightly exaggerated statements that the Kostroma and 1st Jager regiments were practically annihilated, given in the Russian sources, and that the St Petersburg Dragoon Regiment was also badly cut – up, as Petre relates (quoting Wilson), can be dismissed, since the Kostroma and 1st Jager must still have been at reasonable fighting strength because they fought at Eylau ((The Order of Battle for the Russians at Eylau puts the Kostroma and the 1st Jager Regiments on the left wing.)), while the St Petersburg Dragoons were not even engaged at Hoff. ((Petre. F.Loraine, Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland, 1806 – 1807, page 158))

My own interpretation of the positions of the opposing forces at about 4.00 p.m.
My own interpretation of the positions of the opposing forces at about 4.00 p.m.

Since the light began to fail at this time during early February, and not knowing exactly what the weather conditions were like, then, allowing for an overcast sky, visibility must have been quite poor, with wooded areas being particularly gloomy?

If we are to believe the Russian sources (Yermolov), with his troops falling back in some disorder, Barclay decided to form a new line of battle just in front of Hoff. This proved to be very disadvantageous as, with the village behind them, the Russian cavalry were forced to retire due to “superior enemy cavalry” attacking them and forcing them back through the narrow streets. Apparently the Russian infantry should have been deployed in the village and gardens instead of in line in front of them. This deployment meant that they had nowhere to go but to retreat through the village, “because of the deep snow on the plain.” (Yermolov) How they had managed to form a “line” in deep snow in front of the village in the first place, or how they had previously managed to manoeuvre when engaging the initial enemy advance over an extended area is never mentioned. The fact that the French infantry were also attempting to outflank the Russian position through virgin snow, and over undulating terrain, makes it very hard to fathom the real truth behind any of the vague descriptions as sighted in the sources for this battle.

My own reconstruction of a Russian Grenadier (Pavlov) standing in 40 centimetres of snow.
My own reconstruction of a Russian Grenadier (Pavlov) standing in 40 centimetres of snow.

The infantry greatcoats of both armies must have become very heavy when subjected to cold and wet conditions.

The last phase of the battle involved Barclay regrouping at the rear of Hoff, where he was reinforced by 5 battalions of infantry under Dolgorukov, which had been ordered forward by Bennigsen from the main Russian position around Landsberg. Barclay himself, together with the 3rd and 20th Jager Regiments, went to his left wing, which was being attacked by the French, who were endeavouring to cut off the 1st Jager Regiment (?), stationed in some woods, from their communications with Landsberg. ((See above Karpov, who does not state which wing, or which troops were being attacked. See also, Petre. F.Loraine, Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland, 1806 – 1807, page 159. ))  If the troops needing support were the 1st Jager, then, according to Danilevsky’s account these had been “virtually wiped out,” and if they had not been then they must have crossed completely over to the other wing of Barclay’s force because their original position was on the “right flank” not the left; or were the troops on this flank the Kostroma Regiment, which had also, supposedly, been “virtually annihilated”?

While Barclay was away from Hoff, Dolgorukov “faced superior forces,” and was about to retire when he was reinforced by two regiments of cuirassiers from the main army. But darkness had now descended over the battlefield, and Napoleon called off any further attacks.

My own interpretation of the last phase of the battle.
My own interpretation of the last phase of the battle.

It will be noted that there are two roads leading to Landsberg (as also shown on the Russian map). The road to the right of the map (East) was not used by the French, and it must be concluded that their columns were restricted to a single road.

The casualties given in the sources are, like everything else in this perplexing campaign, variously given as ranging from 3,000 to 10,000 killed and wounded. Soult (Archive History) gives the losses incurred by the Russians as 8,000, of whom 3,000 were killed, and 1,500 prisoners. ((Petre. F.Loraine, Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland, 1806 – 1807, page 159)) This would mean that a further 3,500 were wounded. If we believe what the sources tell us concerning the initial troop formations deployed in Barclay’s rear guard then, according to Soult, the whole lot would have been wiped out. Petre, quoting Hœpfner, gives 2,000 as the combined total of Russian casualties. This seems to be nearer the truth. Soult’s own losses for his IV Corps are given as 1,960; Lagrand’s division suffering 1,750, and his light cavalry 210. ((Ibid, page 159)) No breakdown of killed or wounded is given, also no mention of the losses incurred by Murat’s cavalry formations, which, going into action first, must have suffered at least 500 – 600 casualties in killed and wounded, besides the loss of  several hundred horses. Therefore, given the lower figure for Russian losses, plus Soult’s and Murat’s combined casualties, then the field of battle must have been strewn with at least 3,000 – 4,000 killed and wounded, together with 600 –  800 dead or maimed horses – not such a little skirmish as it appears at first glance. (( ((The Order of Battle for the Russians at Eylau puts the Kostroma and the 1st Jager Regiments on the left wing.))


Sorting things out.

The actual time scale of the battle of Hoff is interesting. Petre states that sunset was about 4.40 p.m ((Petre. F. Loraine, Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland, 1806 – 1807, page 152. We should assume that, with many dead horses lying on the battlefield, the French would have been able to feed themselves quite well?)) This would mean that, given the first encounters taking place at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and the various actions involving Murat’s cavalry “before” Soult’s infantry arrived on the field, then by the time the French were in a position to attempt their outflanking manoeuvre, the field would have been in almost total darkness. Also, as I have mentioned before, if the sky was overcast, then visibility must have been greatly reduced well before sunset – hence my question marks with regard to the timing of various actions shown on my maps. The reason why I have given some leeway with this is to allow for Soult’s infantry spreading out across the battlefield through the deep snow they would have had to negotiate in order to reach the positions given.

Tired, cold and hungry troops do not perform well no matter how much faith they may have in their leaders, and horses that have not been fed or cared for properly for several days would be far from robust enough to go “charging” around a battlefield for any prolonged period of time. Like Eylau itself the battle fought at Hoff, although no doubt a bitter struggle was probably fought at a far slower pace than normal. Dragging one’s body and equipment through deep snow and trying to keep some form of alignment must have been terribly tiring, and having to fumble for ammunition with cold hands from a cartridge box hanging at the back, then trying to bite off the end of it and ram it down the muzzle of a probably soaking wet musket barrel, would take a great deal of effort. Consequently, in my humble opinion, not many casualties were inflicted by musket fire. The main killer was canister   shot at quite short range. The normal round shot, be it 6, 8, or 12lb ball, would not be as effective in deep snow owing to its reduced “bounce” potential, which carried the ball on further than its initial ground hit, causing it to act rather like a stone skimmed across water, and enabling it to penetrate deeper into enemy formations. Where cannon ball was used was probably on the squares of the Kostroma Regiment, since this type of almost static infantry dense grouping made an ideal target for round shot. There is also a very strong probability that much of the black powder used by both sides was damp, causing a great amount of misfiring.

We have seen that Barclay de Tolly’s handling of the rear – guard at Hoff has been criticised in some of the Russian sources. The strange thing about all this rear – guard action is the total disappearance of its main commander, General Prince Pyotor Ivanovich Bagration. None of the sources explain what he was doing or where he was during the battle of Hoff. Petre tell us that on the 4th February, ‘The Russian’s marched in three columns, under Sacken, Gallitzin, and Tutchkow, on Wolfsdorf and Arensdorf. The rear – guard followed, also in three columns, under the general command of Bagration…’ ((Petre. F.Loraine, Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland, 1806 – 1807, page 154))  After this we hear no more of him until he turns up again leaving Landsberg with the Russian rear – guard at 8 a.m. on the morning of 7th February. ((Ibid, page 160)) Was he taken ill, or was he wounded – we shall probably never know? His reputation being what it is, I doubt if he was prone to the common failing often found amongst high ranking Russian offices for drink. Yet it does seem strange that, with the French hot on their heels, he is nowhere to be found either before, during, or after the French have pushed “his” rear – guard back almost to Landsberg.

General Prince Bagration
General Prince Bagration

If the whereabouts of Bagration is something of a mystery, then just where Napoleon was is also a matter of some conjecture. When first reading Petre’s account one assumes that the Emperor must have been present on the field of Hoff because he, ‘…ordered the cavalry to attack without waiting for Soult” (see above). However, Petre is quoting from Wilson and Marbot, both of whom are less than reliable when it comes to presenting any real facts. I would go further with Marbot (more on him later) by saying that, “he never tells the truth when I lie will suffice.” If the Emperor was on the field, where were the Imperial Guard cavalry, where was his observation position, and where was he at the conclusion of the battle? Like Bagration, we do not know his exact location, other than, ‘At daybreak on the 4th [February], the Emperor moved forward [from Bergfried], Murat in front of the centre, Ney on the right of Jonkowo, Augereau on the left, Soult, from Bergfried, towards Mondtken.’ ((Petre. F.Loraine, Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland, 1806 – 1807, page 153)) That is it, no more mention of where he was other than the fact that he sent out orders to his various corps commanders directing them to this or that location. Marbot states that Napoleon embraced general d’Hautpoul, ‘…in the presence of the whole (cuirassier) division.’ And that, ‘d’Hautpoul exclaimed, “The only way to show myself worthy of such an honour is to get killed in your Majesty’s service.”

General d’Hautpoul
General d’Hautpoul

Like many other statements put into other people’s mouths by Marbot, we have only his word for it. Also, like Bagration, Napoleon turns up again “followed by Murat, Soult and Augereau,” at Landsberg in pursuit of Bennigsen’s retiring columns. ((Ibid, page 160)) In all probability Napoleon was several miles from Hoff at the commencement of the action, and Murat, receiving instructions to press forward, took it upon himself to engage Barclay’s rear – guard without awaiting the arrival of Soult’s infantry. When the Emperor did finally arrive on the field he “could” indeed have congratulated d’Hautpoul, for that matter he could have congratulated both Murat and Soult, but without knowing his whereabouts during the day we must as least mark him as being absent. If he was indeed present on the field at Hoff then he was no more than a spectator, for he did little else.

The 7th February.

Napoleon was convinced that the Russian’s would offer battle at Landsberg, sending orders to Marshal’s Ney and Davout to close in on the town. However Bennigsen had other plans, and during the night and early morning of the 6th – 7th February pulled back his whole army towards the village of Preussisch – Eylau, leaving his rearguard, now once more commanded by Bagration, to hold up the French advance until 11.00 a.m. at which time they began a fighting retreat following the main body of the Russian army. ((Summerville. Christopher, Napoleon’s Polish Gamble, page 68))

The road leading out of Landsberg. (Now Gorowo Iławeckie) Photo by Kokosz, Google Earth
The road leading out of Landsberg. (Now Gorowo Iławeckie) Photo by Kokosz, Google Earth

The distance from Landsberg to Eylau is approximately 12 kilometres (nine miles).  We are informed by Petre that Bennigsen, “Owing to his having to march from Landsberg on a single road, he was forced, in order to avoid blocking his columns, to send his heavy guns by a more circuitous route to the north.” ((Petre. F. Loraine, Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland, 1806 – 1807, page 164 (footnote 2))) Upon consulting Petre’s map (The Theatre of Operations, February – July 1807) it will be noticed that there is only one road leading from Landsberg to Eylau. There is a road that goes from Landsberg to Pombicken, and form that place a road going back to Eylau but this would have taken the slow moving artillery train at least a full day if not more to reach its prescribed destination which is approximately 19 kilometres (15 miles). Therefore Bennigsen must have set his heavy artillery in motion towards Eylau the moment he arrived at Landsberg with the main Russian army. The rearguard action at Hoff was probably in order to allow enough time for the artillery columns to get well on their way north to Pombicken, thus keeping the main road to Eylau clear for the withdrawal of the army. Also now realising that he must offer a full scale battle in order to retard the French advance on his base at Königsberg, Bennigsen has decided that the only suitable ground on which to array his forces lay around Preussisch Eylau.

Eylau is situated 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of Kӧnigsberg, and I give herewith a full description of the terrain upon which this memorable battle was fought as described by Petre:

The road from Landsberg to Koenigsbereg [Kӧingsberg] passes, for the first 9 miles, through alternate plain and forest, finally emerging, in a clearing, about a mile and a half before it reaches the large village of Preussisch Eylau. In front of this forest there stretches, to the north, east, and south, an undulating plain, the greatest elevation on which amounts to no more than a hillock. In the foreground, on the left of the road, is the lake of Tenknitten, extending half a mile north – west to the village of the same name; to the right is the Waschkeiten Lake. The space of 1000 yards between the two lakes is occupied by slightly elevated ground, with a fairly marked height across the road.

Half a mile before the road reaches Eylau, it begins to descend a slope to the valley, in which the village is situated….The height of the near edge is inconsiderable; that of the farther side, beyond Pr Eyalu, still less. The substantial village lies chiefly in front, stretching some little way right and left of the road. Towards the right of it, the church and cemetery stand on a well – marked mound. The houses, as well as the church, were, in 1807, solidly constructed (see photographs) and afforded good cover to a force defending them. Through the valley, from Rothenen a mile south – east of Eylau, past Althof two miles north – west of it, flows a little stream, the Pasmar. Under the near slope of the valley is a long marshy lake. There are several other ponds in the valley, and on the eastern plateau.

On Eylau converge the roads from Landsberg, Kreuzberg, Koenigsberg, Friedland, Bartenstine, and Heilsberg. Beyond the village the ground soon begins to rise again, and attains the crest of the opposite plateau at a distance of 1000 paces from the outskirts of Eylau. This side of the valley resembles the other contour. Its crest is rather low on the Landsberg – Koenigsberg road, some – what higher farther east by the village of Serpallen, where the highest point in the neighbourhood, the Kreegeberg, overlooks the whole scene. On the arc of a circle, drawn with Eyalu church as its centre and a radius of 2500 yards, will be found the village of Schloditten, on the Koenigsberg road; the hamlet of Anklappen on that to Domnau and Friedland; and Serpallen in the valley, a little to the left of the road to Bartenstein. Behind Schloditten is Schmoditten; behind Anklappen lie Kutschitten and Lampasch; to the north of Serpallen is Klein Sausgarten: all places of importance in the great battle.

The horizon beyond Schmoditten is bounded by forest; there are extensive birch woods in the centre of the triangles, the angles of which are represented by Anklappen, Kutschitten and Klein Sausgarten, – more woods beyond Serpallen, and between Rothenen and the western edge of the valley; behind the spectator is the forest through which has passed the road from Landsberg. In summer, all this scene is a sheet of ripening wheat and rye, interspersed with green meadows, and picked out by the darker colours of the woods, and by the blue of the lakes and ponds – a scene to which the horrors of war seem wholly foreign. Very different was the view on the 7th February: cold and desolate, much more appropriate as a setting to the bloody scenes which were to be enacted there in the next few hours. The whole surface of the country was wrapped in a white pall of deep snow, against the, as yet, unstained purity of which the black woods, the villages, and the troops stood out in sharp relief. The undulations and elevations, never very strongly marked, were even less discernible than when colour and shade were there to lend assistance to the eye. The lakes and streams were obliterated by a thick covering of snow which lay on their frozen surface…. ((Petre. F. Lorraine, Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland, 1806 – 1807 page 161 – 163))

Needing time to draw up his army in battle order on the heights in front of Anklappen and Klein Sausgarten, Bennigsen ordered Bagration to defend the Ziegelhof plateau, about 1 kilometre south of Eylau covering the Landsberg road. Here Bagration deployed only part of his total force of 15,000 men, leaving most of his cavalry and some artillery in the rear owing to the closed nature of the countryside, which was densely wooded. He posted Colonel Ermolov’s horse artillery on the rising ground just outside the village of Grünhӧfchen, and to the rear of this gun line he positioned, on the right, standing on the snow covered and frozen Tenknitten lake, a grenadier regiment; in the centre and to the left were drawn up the Pskov and Sofia Musketeer Regiments under General Markov. The second line consisted of the Moscow Grenadier Regiment under Prince Carl of Macklenburg. The 24th Jager Regiment was spread out in skirmish order in front of the horse artillery, covering the whole front as far as the north – western edge of the Waschkitten Lake. The defence of Eylau itself was given to Barclay de Tolly (Map 5). ((Alexander Milaberidze, Napoleon’s Polish Campaign: General Peter Bagration during January – February 1807, part III: The Battle of Eylau.  The Napoleonic Series. Another article on this excellent site, written by Boris V. Megorsky, states that the Russian Jagers were all drunk on vodka that had been abandoned during the retreat from Landsberg. One could well imagine the whole Russian rearguard being somewhat intoxicated given the conditions they had to endure during all these rapid marches. The problem is, alcohol not only gives a person a “feel good” factor, but also lowers the bodies temperature still further, thus causing hypothermia. ))


Situation at 2.00 p.m. February 7th. Petre gives the 18th and 46th Regiments as advancing against the ridge on which the Russian horse artillery was posted – the 18th Line regiment on the left, the 46th Line regiment on the right. A problem arises here because the 18th Line regiment was part of Legrand’s division, while the 46th Line was part of Laval’s division (Soults Corps). Also some sources state that the 18th Line regiment advanced with the 26th Light Infantry regiment (Lagrand), which would seem to make more sense since both regiments belonged to the same division. Possibly Petre just got mixed up with the 26th and the 46th regiments?

Satellite photograph of the Zieglhof plateau and Eylau Bagrationovsk) today. Google Earth.
Satellite photograph of the Zieglhof plateau and Eylau Bagrationovsk) today. Google Earth.

At 2.00 p.m. the first units of Murat’s cavalry and Soults Corps began to appear on the Landsberg road leading out of the heavily forested region south of the Zieglhof plateau. This time, unlike the fight at Hoff, the French cavalry awaited the arrival of their comrades in the infantry rather than attempting to attack on their own. Soult ordered forward the 18th line and 26th light infantry regiments of Ledru’s Brigade, Lagrand’s division, to attack the Russian gun line, while Shinner’s and Vivier’s Brigades, Leval’s division, pushed through the woods on the right of the Landsberg road towards the Grünberg farm, in an attempt to turn the Russian left. Augereau’s Corps, who were some way behind, was ordered to turn the Russian right flank by way of Tenknitten. ((Petre. F.Loraine, Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland, 1806 – 1807, page 165))

Here Petre states that because they were unsupported, the 18th line and 26th light infantry regiments attack on the Russian centre came under heavy artillery fire as they crossed the frozen Tenknitten Lake. Just what support these two regiments required is debatable. One would presume that some kind of artillery support would be the most effective, since it would be logical to knock out the Russian guns, thus enabling the French infantry to advance without being cut – up by shot and canister? However, Soult may not have managed to get his artillery up on time, being slowed down by the state of the roads, while Murat’s horse guns could well have suffered the same fate, being left far behind as the dashing cavalier pushed on to get into the action. No mention is made in any of the sources regarding just where and who’s artillery was deployed by the French at the commencement of the engagement.

Monument to the battle at Eylau. Google Earth.
Monument to the battle at Eylau. Google Earth.

Because of the lack of support, the 18th regiment, which was moving slightly in advance of the 26th, came under heavy artillery fire from Ermolov’s guns, which caused them to change direction, bearing to their right. Apparently, already shaken, they were now assailed by a bayonet charge led by Bagration in person, and delivered by, presumably, the Russian grenadier regiment who were holding this part of the line? To be assailed with cold steel would seem to suggest that the Russians could not deliver a volley (the bad powder again?) before going in with the bayonet, but since there is also no record of the French firing on their attackers, who must have been struggling through deep snow, then just what occurred remains something of a mystery. It is stated that to complete the defeat of the 18th Line, the St Petersburg dragoons crossed the Tenknitten lake and hit the reeling French on the left flank battalion of the regiment before it could form square, causing the whole mass to become disorganised. Here a certain trooper, one Vasily Podvortny of the St Petersburg dragoons, managed to capture the battalion Eagle. ((Alexander Milkaberidze, Napoleon’s Polish campaign: General Peter Bagration during January – February 1807. Part III: The Battle of Eylau. Napoleon Series, Military Subjects: Battles and Campaigns.))

The 18th Line were saved from ruin by the arrival of Klein’s French dragoons (dismounted?) who, holding back the Russian onslaught, which had now been reinforced by the Pskov and Sofia regiments, enabled the badly shaken 18th to fall back in the direction of Grünehoffen. While this was taking place the 26th Light infantry regiment was also attacked, but managed to retire in good order. ((Alexander Milkaberidze, Napoleon’s Polish campaign: General Peter Bagration during January – February 1807. Part III: The Battle of Eylau. Napoleon Series, Military Subjects: Battles and Campaigns.))

All of the above does have “shades” of Augereau’s Corps crushing defeat the following day. Petre, quoting Hœpfner, says that both battalions of the 18th were overthrown by the charge of the St Petersburg dragoons. Dumas says only one battalion was broken. The thing about all these bayonet and cavalry attacks is that the French never seem to see them coming? With the whole landscape covered in deep snow any attacking formations could not have moved at their normal rate, or for that matter possibly not even in their normal formations. Just how and why a Russian bayonet attack succeeded, and why the French were not able to do something about a cavalry attack, which they must have seen coming well in time to form square, makes me seriously consider the possibility that the 18th Line had come up against a snowdrift many feet deep, thus slowing their progress, as well as making them take a detour (moving to the right) to avoid it?

Trying to sort out the tangle and restore morale, Soult now placed his artillery, at last able to contribute to the action, on the high ground between the villages of Scheweken and Grüncӧfchen. From this position they were able to cause some damage to the Russian gun line, as well as causing the (advancing?) Russian infantry to retire to their original positions. Next Soult switched his attacks to the right as Augereau’s Corps moved into line to attack Tenknitten, both Marshals now combining their assaults on the Russian rearguard, which managed to hold them back until Bennigsen’s main body of the army had passed through Eylau, and realising that his position was now compromised by the French outflanking him, Bagration pulls back to Eylau. Unfortunately none of the sources give any time scale for all this attacking and manoeuvring and, like Hoff, one is left with the distinct impression that most of the fighting must have occurred in twilight. No one mentions the weather, or for matter which way the wind was blowing, although we are well aware that it has been/is snowing, and that the temperature was probably around -10 c. ((Petre says that the thermometer stood at 14 Fahrenheit on the evening of the 7th February (-10c), page 173))

Whatever the conditions, the French finally managed to take possession of the whole of the Ziegelhof plateau, which probably cost them at least 2,000 casualties. The Russians may have also sustained the same amount themselves. On passing through Eylau, Bagration was covered by Barclay de Tolly’s units, which included our old friends the Kostroma Musketeers, 1st, 3rd and 20th Jager regiments, and the Izumsk and Olivopolsk Hussars, plus artillery batteries. ((Alexander Mikaberidze, Napoleon’s Polish Campaign: General Peter Bagration during January – February 1807, Part III: The Battle of Eylau. Napoleon series, Military Subjects: Battles and Campaigns.))

After trying to bring on a general and decisive battle with the main Russian army, and being frustrated in every attempt thus far, Napoleon must have regarded the opportunity now offered too tempting to pass up. That he did indeed arrange to attack Eylau on the 7th February seems logical, and given the fact that he, as well as Bennigsen, fully realised that the Russian’s must make a stand before they were trapped in Kӧnigsberg makes the argument almost watertight. The French had pushed Bagration’s rearguard back into Eylau itself and, as Ermolov states, they followed close behind engaging Barclay de Tolly’s forces who were covering the outskirts of the town. ((Ibid.))

Hand tinted postcard of Eylau 1900
Hand tinted postcard of Eylau 1900

Once again Marbot, who seems to have been everywhere and heard everything, informs us that, being attached to Augereau’s staff, he had overheard a conversation between Napoleon and Augereau in which the Emperor stated, “They wanted me to carry Eylau this evening, but I do not like night fighting; moreover, I do not wish to push my centre too far forward before Davout has come up with the right, and Ney with the left. I shall wait, therefore, until tomorrow, on this high ground, which can be defended by artillery, and which offers an excellent position for our infantry. When Ney and Davout are in line, we can march simultaneously on the enemy.” ((Petre. F.Loraine, Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland, 1806 – 1807, page 167)) The all knowing Marbot next informs us that it was the Emperors personal baggage train that, entering the town due to a misunderstanding, caused the Russian’s to begin plundering it, then some of Soult’s infantry attempted to rescue it, which brought in still more Russian units, and this escalated into a full blown engagement.  If Marbot wrote this all down then he did more than Augereau, who never mentions any of this in his report; if he remembered exactly what was said he had a very good memory. Just who “They” were who suggested attacking Eylau is never disclosed and, like so many of Marbot’s tall stories, should be treated with suspicion.

Soult’s account of the operations of his own Corps (Archive History)states that it was part of the reserve cavalry, plus one of his own regiments (24th) which managed to get into the town and beyond, being forced to retire when counter attacked by the Russian’s. This caused an “impulse” to be imparted to the troops, which made them continue the struggle to such a degree that it was impossible to pull them out without great risk. Petre now states that the tone of Soult’s report is an apology for a movement which Soult considered to be undesirable, and against Napoleon’s wishes. ((Peter. F.Loraine, Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland, 1806 – 1807, (footnote) page 168)) It could be argued that Soult’s “tone” was not an apology for attacking Eylau, but for not pressing the attack further?

Regardless of what actually occurred, it may not have been possible to stop the tired and hungry French soldiers from seeking the shelter of Eylau in any event, since the town was the only place left to get out of the numbing cold, all other villages in the vicinity being crammed full of troops, plus the wounded already?

A slightly different version of events is given by Alexander Mikaberidze:

The 4th and 28th Line Regiments of Soult’s corps approached Eylau from the cemetery. Having entered the streets these regiments were met with a fearful fire and were attacked by Russian infantry. The 2nd battalion of the 4th Line “was dispersed by the volley of grapeshot and almost slaughtered…and pressed back after that horrible bloodshed.” Meanwhile, the embittered French assault went on. “Both artilleries fired on the streets at a distance of several sazhens [old Russian. 1 sazhens is about 2 meters]…the bullets poured as hail, and canon[sic]balls pierced our infantry, that crowded in the streets…”

As the clash spiralled into full – scale battle, French reinforcements continued to flow into Eylau, fighting the Russian’s in the centre. Barclay’s regiments were rather weakened after the bloody engagement at Hof on the previous day, but still they “performed prodigies of valour.” About 5:00 p.m., seeing the French superiority, Bennigsen ordered Bagration to withdraw from the town and the Russian’s began retreating. It was at this moment that Barclay de Tolly was seriously wounded in the arm.

While evacuating the town, Bagration received another order from Bennigsen requiring him to re – capture Eylau at any cost and sending reinforcements under Major General Somow. Having rallied his troops, Bagration himself led a bayonet attack in three columns. Soldiers followed him “quietly, without any noise, but when entering the streets everybody howled ‘Hurrah,’ charged with bayonets – and captured Eylau again.” Hence, at 6:00 p.m. on the 7February, as a result of Bagration’s decisive attack, the town of Eylau was in the possession of the Russian’s.

After seizing Eylau, Bagration went to the headquarters, located at Anklappen, two miles east of Eylau. Meanwhile the Russian main forces had settled into position to the northwest of Eylau, with Somow’s troops holding the town. At dusk, the soldiers scattered in the town, looking for food and shelter. When Somow decided to re – gather his dispersed troops, not having indicated the exact site of assembly, Russian drums began to beat at 9:30 p.m. in the northwest part of town, close to the Russian army positions. Soldiers rushed in disorder through the whole town to the signal. Leaving their positions to the French troops that dashed into town during the confusion. Therefore, by late evening, Eylau was in Napoleon’s possession. ((Alexander Mikaberidze, Napoleon’s Polish Campaign: General Peter Bagration during January – February 1807. Napoleon Series, Military Subjects: Battles and Campaigns.))

Unfortunately this account is as dubious as all the rest. Although it does appear that some time scale has been given to the events occurring during the battle for possession of Eylau, these can be dismissed when we consider that darkness had already fallen, sunset being at 4.40 p.m.. Therefore statements like, “Bagration seeing the French superiority at 5 00 p.m.,” and, “At dusk, the soldiers scattered in the town,” should not be taken seriously, since everything was already in total darkness, the only light possibly coming from burning buildings.

The story about Russian drummers is interesting. Each battalion had its own drum section, and these would presumably be stationed with the battalion commander at a focal point known to all. The regimental commander would/should have been well aware of the placement of the various components of his command, and battalion and company captains and lieutenants, unless totally cut off from their parent unit, would have had some idea where their men were spread out. Consequently, why General Somow decided to re – gather his dispersed troops creates a real problem – if the town was meant to be held by the Russian’s – why collect all your men together when they are supposed to be dispersed across the town in holding positions in the first place?

Arial view of Eylau taken in 1930
Arial view of Eylau taken in 1930

Without trying to complicate the complicated, it probably boils down to the simple fact that once several thousand soldiers, on both sides, got into Eylau, they were loath to give it up and fought each other until the one side was driven out, being too exhausted to attempt another attack?

The total cost in lives on the 7th February will never be known for sure. That the fighting was severe there can be little doubt, and given the fact that much of the action took place during darkness, then we should not be too surprised if quite a few of the casualties were due to “friendly fire.” Trudging around a snow covered battlefield not knowing what is in front of you makes men trigger – happy, while fighting in darkened streets and houses is not conducive to fast reaction when it come to recognising friend from foe.

When all the marching and fighting that occurred “before” the actual battle on the 8th February is taken into account, I still consider that what took place that day on the frozen and snow covered landscape around Eylau was not so much a battle as a vast plodding –  slogging match, with each side attempting some kind of tactical manoeuvres which they never achieved because their men were too tired and cold, and the ground over which they had to carry out these operations either blocked by deep snow, or made so slippery by thousands of shuffling feet and hooves that men could hardly stand. Did Augereau’s Corps wonder off course because it was blinded by a blizzard, or had it got stuck in a deep snowdrift and was thus forced to try to find a less obstructed route? All of this will be discussed at a later date.

Before closing I have one more observation to make concerning the feeding of horses during this gruelling campaign. Many of the sources mention the fact that thatch was taken from cottage roofs to feed the horses when normal supplies of fodder failed. In Poland, as well as many other European countries, thatch is made mainly from straw and reeds. Given the abundance of lakes in Poland, reeds were used for roofing, this material being cheap and readily available. Straw was used, but not to any great extent, as much of this was needed for animal bedding and as a filling for bed mattresses and the like, besides which it is not as durable as reeds. The enclosed photograph shows just what these reeds were like, and to try and feed a horse with them would have proven impossible owing to the fact that once cut, and several years old, they become hard, making them too tough to chew or digest and totally lacking in nourishment. Straw also becomes indigestible and dirty after a year or so on a roof.

Krystian Kozerawski Photoblog
Krystian Kozerawski Photoblog

Graham J.Morris,
June 2009

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