Battle of Auerstädt, 14 October 1806

Introduction
The Armies
The Battlefield
The Battle
Aftermath and Conclusion

Introduction

The battle of Auerstädt (14 October 1806) was the most important of two simultaneous French victories over the Prussians and saw Marshal Davoût with a single corps defeat the main body of the Prussian army while further south Napoleon with most of the Grand Armée defeated the smaller Prussian flank guard at Jena.

In September 1806, at the start of the War of the Fourth Coalition the Prussians advanced into Saxony, forced the Saxon army to serve alongside them and then paused while their commanders attempted to decide what to do next. After repeatedly changing their plans they eventually decided to concentrate at Erfurt and advance to the south-west, a move that might have threatened Napoleon's communications.

Portrait of Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout, 1770-1823
Portrait of
Marshal Louis-Nicolas
Davout, 1770-1823

The biggest flaw in the Prussian plan was that they assumed Napoleon would stay on the defensive. Hardly unexpectedly he didn't do this, and instead concentrated the Grand Armée at Bamberg. He then crossed the wooded hills of the Thüringerwald in three columns, a move that would put him on the Prussian's left flank and threaten to cut them off from Berlin. Napoleon's aim was to force the Prussians to accept battle and prevent them from retreating towards their Russian allies.

Davout and Bernadotte formed the central column of the army as it crossed the Thüringerwald. The advance began on 8 October, and the army emerged safely from the hills without being challenged. Minor clashes at Schleiz (9 October) and Saalfeld (10 October) alerted the Prussians to their presence, and began a short period in which neither side was entirely sure what the other was doing. On 10 October Napoleon believed that the Prussians would move east across the Saale River and move to Gera, from where they could block the road to Leipzig. He ordered his army to move towards Gera hoping to get there before the Prussians. The Prussians had a different plan. Hohenlohe with the flank guard was to move to Jena while Brunswick with the main army concentrated at Weimar, between Jena and Erfurt.

On 11 October Napoleon learnt that the Prussians weren't heading for Gera. He now decided that they must be concentrating around Erfurt and so on 12 October he ordered his army to wheel to the left and prepare to cross the Salle, advance west and attack the Prussians at Erfurt on 16 October. Davoût was ordered to make for Naumberg, where he would form the right flank of the army while Bernadotte was sent towards Kosen, where there was another bridge over the river. Two corps were to head for Jena and the rest of the army watched the road to Leipzig.

On 13 October Napoleon issued three sets of orders. In the first set he ordered Bernadotte to join Davout. Soon after issuing this order he received a series of reports that convinced him that the Prussians were planning to retreat north towards Magdeburg. Davout was ordered to stay where he was, but Bernadotte's orders were altered and he was sent to Dornburg, further south along the Saale. Finally a message arrived from Lannes informing him that a strong Prussian force was facing him at Jena. Napoleon decided that this must be the main Prussian force and that the Prussians might attack Lannes. He now ordered most of his men to concentrate at Jena. Davout was ordered to advance towards Apolda, passing through the town of Auerstädt. If Napoleon was right then this would put Davout behind the Prussians and cut their lines of retreat.

At the end of Davout's orders a postscript was added that would cause much controversy. It read 'If … Bernadotte is with you, you can march together, but the Emperor hopes that he will be in the position assigned to him at Dornburg'. When this ordered reached Davout, early on 14 October, Bernadotte's corps was very close to him. The order was passed on, but Bernadotte refused to alter his plans and spent 14 October marching in the gap between the two battles, taking part in neither of them.

Napoleon was wrong about the Prussian intentions. When they discovered that Davout was already to their north-east they decided to retreat north. They would march through Auerstädt and then turn north after briefly crossing the Saale. This meant that the Duke of Brunswick's main body and Davoût's single corps began the day marching towards each other along the road between Auerstädt and Kosen.

The Armies

Davoût had command of III Corps. This consisted of Morand's, Friant's and Gudin's infantry divisions, with 26,000 men between them, supported by 1,622 cavalry, 1,681 artillerymen and 46 guns.

He faced the main Prussian army under the command of the Duke of Brunswick, but with King Frederick William III of Prussia also present. This army contained around 60,000-63,000 men in total, although only around 50,000 of them took part in the battle, and the troops that did take part were fed into the battle piecemeal. The Duke was mortally wounded early in the battle. After that King Frederick William was in formal command of the army, but he never really got a grip on the situation.

Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt
Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt

The Prussian army was not as well organised as the French. The 1st Division or Right Wing was commanded by General William Frederick, Prince of Orange. The 2nd Division, or Centre, was commanded by General von Wartensleben. The 3rd Division or Left Wing was also the Army Vanguard and was commanded by General von Schmettau at the start of the battle. He was wounded early on and Brunswick's chief of staff Scharnhorst took command. The Reserve Corps, under General Count von Kalkreuth, was split into two reserve divisions, the 1st Reserve Division under Graf von Kuhnheim and the 2nd Reserve Division under General von Arnim. Finally General Blücher had command of the Advance Guard Division, made up largely of light troops.

The Battlefield

The battle was fought on hilly ground to the west of the Saale River. The river had a steep wooded escarpment on the west bank. At Kösen there was a stone bridge over the Saale. The road then climbed up the steep pass of Kösen, which climbed up that escarpment, to reach the top of a plateau. From there it ran west to the plateau of Hassenhausen before reaching the village of the same name. The road then dropped down a gentle slope to the villages of Tauchwitz and Poppel (close to each other in a shallow valley). From there the road ran south-west to Gernstedt, then continued on in the same direction as it dropped down to Auerstädt, on the River Emsen.

The Battle

On the night of 13-14 October the Prussians were camped around Auerstädt and the French were at Naumburg, with an advance guard at Kosen, where they occupied the pass west of the village. Both sides were aware that the other was close, but they reacted in different ways. Davout prepared to advance along the road and see what he found. Brunswick, fearing that Napoleon was present in person, decided to move to Hassenhausen and then attempt to slip away to the north without fighting a battle.

The opening moves on 14 October took place in the fog. Neither side was thus entirely sure where the other was. Gudin's 3rd Division began to move at around 4am, with the 25th line at the head of the infantry and a cavalry screen ahead of them. By 7am the leading French cavalry was approaching Poppel and the infantry was close to Hassenhausen.

The Prussians were also on the move. They left Auerstädt at around 6am, and advanced from Auerstädt towards Poppel. At around 7pm the French cavalry ran into some Prussian dragoons at Poppel. The French were forced back towards their infantry. Gudin formed square just in case, and this paid off a few minutes later when the pursuing Prussian cavalry arrived. The Prussians were repulsed. Davout ordered Gudin to occupy Hassenhausen and then advance west to the valley leading to Poppel (the Lissbach).

At this point the mist lifted. Gudin could see that he faced ten squadrons of cavalry (temporarily commanded by Blucher). The French artillery opened fire, knocking out the Prussian horse artillery. Blücher was forced to withdraw and wait for the infantry. Both sides struggled to get more troops to the battlefield. On the Prussian side Schmettau's division, with nine battalions, arrived by around 8am. On the French side Friant's 2nd Division was crossing the Saale bridge and Morand's 1st Division was further behind.

The Prussians outnumbered Gudin's men, but they failed to coordinate their attacks. Blücher's cavalry attacked first and was repulsed by the French, who had formed squares at Hassenhausen. The infantry then advanced towards the village, but then paused to allow Wartensleben time to arrive and deploy on the Prussian right. This delay gave the French time to move Friant's division into the line. He was posted on the French right to guard against Blücher's cavalry. Davout expected the main Prussian attack to come to the north and so his right flank was his strongest.

At around 10am the Prussians finally launched a major attack, with Schmettau on the left and Wartensleben on the right. Schmettau's attack failed, but Wartensleben was more successful, routing the French 85th Line. Davout was able to restore the situation, but all of his available troops were now in the front line. One division was still to arrive, and he hoped to receive help from Bernadotte.

The Prussians had a short-lived chance to attack the French left while it was still vulnerable, but instead they chose to attack in the centre, where a series of attacks were repulsed. At this point the Prussian high command suffered a series of blows. Schmettau was wounded while Brunswick's chief of staff, Scharnhorst, was visiting his division. Scharnhorst was thus away from the high command when the Duke of Brunswick was mortally wounded. Frederick William's senior military advisor, the elderly Marshal Mollendorf (a veteran of the Seven Years War), was also soon out of action. The King decided to take personal command of his army, but he proved to be an ineffective commander. At this point less than half of the Prussian army had been committed, while the French still had one fresh division.

Both sides received reinforcements before the next major bout of fighting. On the French side Morand arrived and was posted on the French left. On the Prussian side the Prince of Orange arrived, but his division was split. One brigade was sent to the left while the rest of the division was sent south to fill gaps in the line. Both sides now had three infantry divisions in their line. The Prussians had more cavalry, the French had a better position and better led troops. These troops arrived on the field at about 11am.

Morand's men effectively won the battle. First they helped defeat a Prussian infantry attack on the French centre. Next they formed into squares and repulsed five attacks by thirty squadrons of Prussian infantry. Finally they formed into columns and pushed the Prussian infantry back into the Lissbach valley (west of Hassenhausen). This attack broke the morale of Wartensleben's division, which now began to flee from the field.

At this point the Prussians still had fourteen infantry battalions, five cavalry squadrons and three artillery batteries that they hadn't used and a skilful offensive could have saved the day. This wasn't to be - Frederick William was convinced that he was facing Napoleon in person, and refused to consider launching another attack.

That role was instead performed by Davout. Despite being heavily outnumbered, at about noon the French launched a general attack along their line, with the two divisions on the flanks ahead of the central division in a crescent formation. On the French right Friant encountered fierce resistance at Poppel but eventually took the village and 1,000 prisoners. On the left Morand continued his strong performance. The Prussians were forced back to Rehausen, south of Poppel and the French then occupied the Sonnekuppe Hill, a dominating position. The French artillery pounded the Prussian right from this high ground and the Prussian army began to retreat. 

Blücher managed to create a rearguard and attempted to hold up the advancing French. Gudin's division, which had been in combat all day, launched a frontal assault on this last obstacle, while the other two French divisions attacked its flanks. The French continued to press the Prussians until around 4.30 when they finally stopped on the heights overlooking Auerstädt.

Aftermath and Conclusion

The Prussians probably lost 15,000 dead and wounded during the battle along with 3,000 prisoners and 57 field guns. They left the battlefield as a coherent force, but this didn’t last for too long. The organised retreat from Auerstädt ran into the disorganised survivors of Jena, and the army lost much of its organisation. Davout reported having lost 258 officers and 6,794 men wounded or killed, with Gudin's division having suffered the worst.

Davout had won one of the most remarkable victories of the Napoleonic Wars, not just holding his position, but inflicting a significant defeat despite being outnumbered by more than two-to-one. When the news reached Napoleon at Jena late in the day he initially refused to believe the reports, but eventually had to admit that his subordinate had fought the larger battle of the day. In the Fifth Bulletin of the Grand Armée, issued on the day after the battle, Napoleon stated that 'On our right, Marshal Davout's corps performed wonders. Not only did he contain, but he pushed back, and defeated, for more than three leagues, the bulk of the enemy's troops, which were to debouch through Kosen'. This was fulsome praise for Napoleon, and indicated the debt he owed to Davout. If Davout had not won his battle at Auerstadt the bulk of the Prussian army would have escaped intact, and Napoleon's own victory at Jena would have lost most of its significance.

Over the next two weeks Napoleon swept up the rest of the Prussian army. Berlin was occupied and the last few fortresses west of the Oder surrendered. Only the king escaped from him, fleeing into Prussian occupied Poland. The War of the Fourth Coalition was about to enter a more difficult phase for the French as they invaded Poland for the first time.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (13 August 2012), Battle of Auerstädt, 14 October 1806 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_auerstadt.html

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