Key point: Napoleon seemed unstoppable. Indeed, the Russians couldn't win, but they wouldn't just surrender either.
Following the French Army’s brilliant victories at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstadt on October 14, 1806, the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte subsequently launched his Grande Armée in a devastating pursuit of the remnants of the Prussian Army. The end result was the disintegration of the Prussians as a viable fighting force and the occupation of their territory. On October 25, Marshal Nicholas Davout and his III Corps, the heroes of Auerstadt, were given the honor of leading the French Army into Berlin. On the 27th Napoleon received the keys to the city. Berlin, like Vienna, had fallen to the French.
A few days earlier, on his way to the capital, the Emperor had stopped in Potsdam to pay homage at the tomb of Frederick the Great, one of the few military commanders he admired. After viewing in silence the final resting place of the great king, Napoleon ordered confiscated as military trophies several of Frederick’s personal items, including his sword, general’s sash, and Ribbon of the Black Eagle. These, the Emperor stated, were “for the consolation of those of our invalides who escaped the catastrophe of Rossbach.” Thus the Seven Years’ War battle where France had been decisively defeated by Frederick’s Prussians had been avenged.
By November 6, one Prussian corps, that of General Lestocq, and a few fortresses and scattered detachments were all that remained of Prussia’s vaunted military power. Wrote historian David Chandler, “It had taken only 33 days to destroy the armies of Prussia and with them the legend of Prussian invincibility. The whole war had lasted only seven weeks. The blitzkrieg of Napoleonic warfare had once again been convincingly demonstrated.” Along with the capture of their major fortresses, tons of military supplies, hundreds of cannon, and the horses of 53 Prussian cavalry squadrons fell into French hands. These horses were a godsend, because the French squadrons were badly in need of remounts after the recent fighting. These fine animals would play a major role in the upcoming campaign.
Although he had destroyed Prussia’s ability to wage war and had occupied most of the country, Napoleon was vexed by the fact that the Prussians still refused to surrender. The Prussian king, Frederick Wilhelm III, had fled and was seeking the safety of his Russian allies who, despite Prussia’s present circumstances, had sworn to continue the war against France. Thus the defeat of Prussia had not brought France any closer to a general peace. The Emperor faced several other problems as well. Austria, part of the original coalition against France and now a declared neutral, was making plans to rearm. The discipline of the Grande Armée was starting to disintegrate and his soldiers were committing depredations against the Prussian people. A deputation from the Senate in Paris had come to Berlin, not to congratulate him on his recent victory, but to try to persuade the Emperor to make peace. England, the “nation of shopkeepers,” continued to finance hostile coalitions against France. Then there was Russia, the only enemy left against him who still had armies in the field.
Napoleon moved quickly to deal with the myriad problems facing him. He continued to try to bring Prussia to agree to a peace. He settled affairs with the Austrians by assuring them he had no hostile intentions against their territory and, by returning part of Silesia to their control, he guaranteed their continued neutrality. He coolly informed the Senate that he would make peace when Russia agreed to join with him in liberating Europe from English tyranny. As for England, on November 21 Napoleon issued the “Berlin Decrees,” which ordered the closure of all European ports under French control to English commerce and correspondence, and enjoined an economic blockade against Great Britain. The aim of the “Continental System,” as it came to be known, was to deny England access to European markets, thereby creating a state of economic ruin and social unrest among her people. If the English government were engaged in trying
to alleviate the pressure of a failing economy, it would have neither the time nor the money to finance any further coalitions against France.
Alexander Committed over 100,000 Soldiers to Aiding Prussia
As for Russia, Tsar Alexander I was not willing to accept French dominion over Europe. Besides, he still honored his military pact with Prussia. Realizing that the Russians would have to be dealt with sooner or later, Napoleon quickly decided on the former option. After allowing his troops a brief respite during which he formulated his battle plans, the Emperor launched six corps of the Grande Armée across the Oder River into Poland. His objective was to reach the west bank of the Vistula River where he would occupy a line from Thorn to Warsaw. If there were no major offensive movements from the Russians, the Grande Armée could safely winter in this region where it would be in a favorable position to renew the campaign the following spring. Such a maneuver would, he hoped, not only halt further Prussian attempts at mobilization in the region, but also excite the Polish provinces into open revolt. Although his six corps were widely scattered owing to their pursuit of various fleeing Prussian detachments, Napoleon nevertheless gave the order to cross the Oder and advance on the Vistula.
The Russians, under the orders of Tsar Alexander, had committed two field armies totaling some 105,000 men to support Prussia. The first of these armies, roughly 60,000 strong, was under the command of General Levin A.T. Bennigsen, a German in Russian service. The original plan was for the Prussians to await the arrival of the Russian forces before they engaged Napoleon. The Prussians, however, convinced of their martial superiority, attacked before the Russians could arrive to support them and were decisively defeated at Jena and Auerstadt. When Bennigsen learned of Prussia’s defeat, his army had only reached the town of Grodno on the Russian frontier in Poland. The news of the disaster at Jena, combined with his orders not to cross the Vistula, convinced Bennigsen that his best option was to withdraw and cover Warsaw in an effort to buy time for Field Marshal Friedrich Buxhowden to assemble his 45,000-man army near Koenigsberg and then effect a union of the two armies. This would also give Lestocq’s Prussian corps a chance to join with the Russian forces.
Upon learning of Bennigsen’s withdrawal from Warsaw, Napoleon correctly guessed that the Russian commander would attempt to take up a position between the Ukra and Narew Rivers, there to ultimately join with Buxhowden and Lestocq. He therefore ordered his army in pursuit with the objective of catching and defeating Bennigsen before he could unite with Lestocq’s Prussians or Buxhowden’s Russians. On December 15, Napoleon learned that Bennigsen and Buxhowden had united but were still continuing to retire from him. This maneuver resulted in two indecisive battles at Pultusk and Golymin on December 26. As a consequence of these actions, Napoleon called off his advance and the army retired into winter quarters.
The army would not stay long in winter quarters, however, because near the end of January 1807, Napoleon learned that Bennigsen had launched an unexpected attack against elements of two French corps. Napoleon discovered that, contrary to his orders, Marshal Michel Ney had moved his VI Corps forward through the Polish lakeland regions. Although Ney had made this move in an effort to find forage for his corps, the fact remained that Bennigsen viewed the VI Corps’ movement as a renewal of French operations against him. Napoleon was furious when he learned that the army’s wintering was being interrupted by a Russian offensive prompted by Ney. Over the next several days the dispatches sent to Ney from Marshal Louis-Alexandre Berthier, the chief of staff, were filled with the Emperor’s displeasure. Left with no other alternative, on January 27 Napoleon ordered out the army to deal with Bennigsen’s attack. “The Emperor does not wish to re-occupy his winter quarters before he has destroyed the enemy.” Despite the Emperor’s wishes there would be a winter campaign after all.
Bennigsen’s Amazing Stroke of Luck
Napoleon resolved to use Bennigsen’s advance against Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte’s I Corps as the bait for a trap. He ordered Bernadotte to fall back before the Russians, luring them westward. Meanwhile, the other four corps and the Imperial Guard would move to form a pocket around the “bait” with Ney’s corps linking the left of the pocket with the main body. The more Bennigsen advanced after Bernadotte, the deeper he would be in the trap. If the maneuver were successful the French would cut Bennigsen’s army in two and trap several of his corps in the pocket.
Napoleon, however, had misread Bennigsen’s original intention. While Ney’s movements may have prompted Bennigsen to move faster, the Russians had previously planned to launch an offensive and were already advancing when Ney moved his camp. Bennigsen, whose attention was fixed on Bernadotte, was moving blindly into the trap. Fortunately for the Russian commander, he was to be saved by a stroke of luck. A young, inexperienced French officer carrying a copy of Napoleon’s orders to Bernadotte got lost and was captured by Cossacks. Within a few hours an amazed Bennigsen was reading the Emperor’s detailed orders of the operation. Realizing the danger he was in, Bennigsen quickly ordered the army to concentrate at Ionkovo to meet this impending threat.