Battle of Eylau, 8 February 1807

Introduction and Background
The Russian Offensive, January 1807
The Russian Retreat
The Battle of Eylau, Preliminaries 7 February
The Battle of Eylau, 8 February
Conclusion and Aftermath

Introduction and Background

The battle of Eylau (8 February 1807) was the first major setback suffered by Napoleon on the battlefield and was a costly inconclusive battle fought in the snow in East Prussia.

Only four months earlier Napoleon had achieved one of his most impressive victories, defeating the highly regarded Prussian army in a campaign that had only lasted a few weeks. The decisive moment came early in the campaign when the Prussians were defeated at Auerstadt and Jena (both 14 October 1806). Over the next few weeks the French destroyed most of the rest of the Prussian army, occupied Berlin and captured most Prussian fortresses. Prussia was effectively knocked out of the Fourth Coalition, although King Frederick William III of Prussia refused to make peace and the remnants of his army pulled back into East Prussia. This left the Russians to stand alone against Napoleon in central Europe.

Napoleon decided to take up winter quarters on the east bank of the Vistula so that he wouldn't have to cross that river at the start of the campaign of 1807. In November the French captured Warsaw and crossed the Vistula in several places. The Russians decided not to defend the Vistula, and even pulled back from the Bug. They then changed their mind and attempted to move back to the Bug but they arrived too late and the French had already established a bridgehead close to the junction of the Bug and the Vistula. The Russians attempted to hold the line of the River Ukra and Bug, but the French managed to force their way across the Ukra at its mouth (combat of Czarnowo, 23 December 1806). Napoleon then attempted to pursue the Russians, but the twin battles of Pultusk and Golymin on 26 December were both inconclusive. The weather was now terrible, and on 28 December Napoleon ordered his men into winter quarters.

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

Most of the French army was sent into winter quarters to the north-east of Warsaw. Lannes was on the right, on the River Bug. Davout was next, on the Narew, with Soult to his left. Augereau was posted to the west of the River Ukra, putting him behind the main French concentration. Further north Ney occupied the area around the head of the River Ukra and Bernadotte covered the gap up to the Baltic coast. Napoleon didn't expect the Russians to attack during the winter, but put in place plans to deal with any attack on his centre of right. Bernadotte was considered to be safe from any major assault.

The Russian Offensive, January 1807

Napoleon had underestimated the Russians. At the start of January the Russians held a council of war and decided to attack Bernadotte on the French left. They would leave their base on the Narew, move north behind the forest of Johannesburg, then turn west and advance across the Rivers Alle and Passarge. They would then defeat the isolated troops on the French left, cross the Vistula and either force Napoleon to abandon his positions east of that river or put themselves in a good position for the campaign of 1807.

Portrait of Marshal Jean Lannes, 10 April 1769-1809
Portrait of
Marshal Jean Lannes,
10 April 1769-1809

The Russian campaign began well. By mid-January they were heading west towards Bernadotte, and the French had no idea that they had moved. There was one major problem with the Russian plan - it assumed that Napoleon would react in a passive or defensive way, not something that his previous career would support. The French were saved from a total surprise by Marshal Ney, who had rather disobeyed his orders and instead of staying in his winter quarters had advanced north towards Konigsberg. By mid-January Ney's scattered troops were thus in the direct course of the Russian advance. On 19 January the leading Russian troops ran into some of Ney's cavalry. This warning gave Bernadotte the time to mass enough of his troops to stop the Russian advance at Mohrungen (25 January 1807).

On 26 January Napoleon still believed that the Russians were planning to go into winter quarters in front of Ney, but by 27 January he realised what was going on. He immediately realised that he had a chance to inflict a crushing defeat on the Russians and ordered his men out of their winter quarters. Davout, Soult, Ney and Murat with the cavalry were ordered north towards the River Alle, hopefully putting them behind the advancing Russians. Bernadotte was ordered to move slowly south towards Thorn where he was to form the left wing of the army. This movement was to begin on 1 February.

The Russian Retreat

By that point Napoleon's plan had already failed. Berthier handed Bernadotte's orders to a young officer newly arrived from France. He was captured by Cossacks on his way north and was unable to destroy the order. A complete copy of Napoleon's plans was thus handed to Bennigsen on 1 February. He responded by ordering his army to retreat to Jankovo, where on 3 February an inconclusive battle was fought. This also meant that Bernadotte didn't receive his orders. After the fight at Mohrungen he retreated to Strasburg (Brodnica) where he remained until 4 February. As a result he missed the battle of Eylau. He didn't receive fresh orders until 3 February, and by 7 February had only reached Reichertswalde (modern Markowo), thirty miles from Eylau. 

Marshal Soult
Portrait of Marshal
Jean-de-Dieu Soult

As the Russians retreated to the north-east the French followed closely, with Soult and Davout on their right, Augereau and the Guard in the centre and Ney and Murat on the left. Napoleon was hoping to outflank the Russians and catch them at Landsberg. Ney was then detached to the left to deal with a small Prussian corps under General Lestocq. Over the next few days Ney was thus advancing parallel to the main French force. Davout was left on the right, while Soult joined the centre.

On 6 February the Russian rearguard under Barclay de Tolly fought a sharp action against Murat's cavalry and part of Soult's corps at Hof (Dworzno), south-west of Landsberg (Gorowo Ilawecki). Napoleon decided that the strong resistance at Hof meant that the Russians were planning to make a stand at Landsberg. Murat, Soult and Augereau were directly following the Russians. Ney, on the left, and Davout, on the right, were both ordered to march towards Landsberg, where they were expected to take part in a major battle on 7 February. Ney's job of watching the Prussians was expected to be taken over by Bernadotte - Napoleon was still unaware that Bernadotte was so far behind the main army.

Bennigsen wasn't actually planning to make a stand at Landsberg. On the night of 6-7 February his main army retreated to Eylau. The rearguard held out at Landsberg for an hour early on 7 February and then moved north-east to join the main army. On the morning of 7 February the French centre followed them. Soult and Murat reached Eylau at around 2pm, followed during the afternoon by Augereau and the Imperial Guard. The French began involved in a fight with the Russian rearguard, but soon had command of the area west of Eylau.

The Battle of Eylau, Preliminaries 7 February

The battle of Eylau began in the afternoon of 7 February when fighting broke out in the town of Eylau. The exact cause of this fighting is unclear. Napoleon later claimed that he had ordered an attack on the town partly to pin the Russians in place and party to gain some shelter for his troops.

Portrait of Marshal Michel Ney (1769-1815)
Portrait of
Marshal Michel Ney
(1769-1815)

This version of events is generally believed to be untrue, and the fighting to have developed accidently. Napoleon is recorded by Baron Marbot, a member of Augereau's staff, as having decided to spend the night on the ridge south-west of Eylau and not attack until Ney and Davout were closer to the field. The fighting was actually triggered by Napoleon's personal baggage train, which arrived at around 2pm and moved into Eylau in an attempt to find suitable quarters. Much to their surprise they discovered that the Russians were very close to the town. A Russian patrol attacked them and they had to be rescued by their Guard escort. Some of Soult's men, who were posted on the western edge of the town, rushed in to rescue the baggage train. The Russians heard the fighting and fed more men into this battle.

This fighting lasted for about eight hours, with the hardest fighting taking place in the village cemetery. Eylau changed hands several times but by around 7pm the Russians had withdrawn to their main position and the French were left in occupation of the village overnight.

The Battle of Eylau, 8 February

Eylau sits in a valley with low heights on both sides. Although there were a number of lakes and watercourses in the area in February 1807 they were all frozen and snow covered, and played little or no part in the fighting. The Russians were drawn up on the ridge east of the town, with their line facing south-west towards the town. The French were facing north-east, with Eylau in the left-centre of their line. The western ridge was slightly higher than the eastern ridge, so the French had a slight advantage. On the morning of 8 February the weather was very bad, with snow storms and blizzards. This limited visibility on the day and played a major part in the events to follow.

Marshal Joachim Murat
Marshal Joachim Murat

On the morning of 8 February the French were deployed with two of Soult's on their left, around Eylau, Augereau on the centre-right, with St. Hilaire's division from Soult's corps to his right (Augereau had originally been in the second line - when he advanced into the front line St. Hilaire moved right to make space). Murat's cavalry and the Guard were placed in reserve. This gave the French around 45,000 men at the start of the fight. Once Davout and Ney arrived the French had around 75,000 men available. The French were outnumbered in artillery, with 200 guns while the Russians had 460 guns.

The Russians began the day with around 65,000-67,000 men, deployed to the north-east of Eylau. Ostermann-Tolstoi was on the Russian left, Sacken in the centre and Tutchkov (or Tuchkov) on the right. When Lestocq's Prussians arrived the Russians also had around 75,000 men.  Bennigsen used some of his artillery to form two big gun batteries of 60 and 70 guns, posted in the front line.

Napoleon was hoping to inflict a crushing defeat on the Russians, but this depended on the prompt arrival of Davout and Ney. His plan was for Soult to carry out a pinning attack on the Russians to prevent them from retreated. This would give time for Davout to appear on the French right. He would attack the Russian left and also pressure their line of retreat towards Konigsberg. Augereau and Murat formed the 'masse de décision', to be committed to the battle after Davout had disrupted the Russian left. Ney was only ordered to make for Eylau early on 8 February, so his arrival couldn't be guaranteed, but if he did make it in time then his role was to complete a double envelopment of the Russian force.

The fighting began at around 8am with a Russian artillery bombardment of Eylau. The French counterbattery fire was more accurate, but the Russians had the advantage of numbers and the bombardments were probably equally effective.

The artillery duel was followed by a cautious advance by Soult on the French left, which began at around 9am. This was designed to distract attention away from the French right where Davout's leading division (Friant) was close to the field. Neither French move had the impact that Napoleon had hoped for. Friant was engaged by Russian cavalry and his advance almost stopped. On the left Soult's attack was repulsed and the Russians counter-attacked. There was a real danger that the French left would be pushed back from Eylau, exposing the entire French line to danger.

Napoleon decided to launch a fresh attack using Augereau's corps and St. Hilaire's division. Augereau was to attack Ostermann Tolstoi on the Russian left while St. Hilaire made contact with Friant, strengthening the outflanking move. Both units were to advance forward and to the right.

This attack began at around 10am and ended in disaster. A blizzard blinded Augereau's men, and instead of moving forward and to the right they drifted to the left. They passed in front of the French guns at Eylau and suffered heavy casualties from friendly fire (the snow meant that the French gunners couldn't see Augereau's men). Augereau's men continued to advance, but this brought them in front of the central Russian artillery battery of seventy guns. The two divisions of Desjardins and Heudelet suffered very heavy casualties from grapeshot fired from the artillery. Bennigsen responded to the French attack by committing his two reserve columns to the battle. Augereau's men were charged from the front by the Russian reserve and in the flank by another Russian infantry brigade and some cavalry. Augereau's corps was broken by this attack and most of the survivors of the attack fled back into Eylau. Augereau may have lost as many as 6,000 men from his 9,000 strong corps. Augereau gave his loses as 929 dead and 4,271 wounded.

The only exception was the leading infantry regiment, the 14th Line. This regiment ended up on a slight mound on the eastern slope of the valley, surrounded by Russian troops. The regiment formed a square and attempted to fight off the Russians. Augereau sent a series of staff officers to order the 14th to retreat, but most were killed. Finally Captain Marbot managed to reach the 14th, but it was too late. The regiment's commander told Marbot 'I can see no way of saving the regiment. Return to the Emperor and give him the farewells of the 14th Line which has faithfully carried out his orders, and take him the Eagle which we gave him but can no longer defend'. Marbot was wounded while attempting to escape with the Eagle, which was captured by the Russians. Thirty six officers and 590 men from the 14th Line were buried on the battlefield.

At around 10.30 a Russian column reached Eylau. Napoleon's headquarters was now based in the town, and the Russians came very close to capturing the Emperor. His personal escort sacrificed themselves to win time for the Guard to rescue the Emperor. The Russian column was destroyed by the Guard, but it had been a close-run thing.

The French were now in serious trouble. Soult on the left had been pushed back. Augereau in the centre-right had been destroyed. Davout's leading troops had arrived but were held up. Ney had yet to arrive. There was now a gap in the French line between Augereau's remaining troops and St. Hilaire, who had successfully advanced to the right but had been unable to help Friant make progress.

Napoleon still had the Imperial Guard and the Cavalry Reserve. He chose to use Murat's cavalry. Murat had 10,700 cavalrymen at his disposal in the centre of the field, mostly dragoons but with 1,900 cuirassiers and 1,500 Guard cavalry. Murat's cavalry charge was one of the most successful of all time. First the French cavalry drove off the survivors of the Russian attack on Eylau. They then split into two columns and defeated the Russian cavalry in front of the French centre and right. The two French cavalry columns then broke through Sacken's infantry in the Russian centre. This put them behind the main Russian line. The two columns were reunited and then charged Sacken's infantry from the rear, before finally attacking the 70 gun battery. The final stages of Murat's retirement were covered by more of the Guard Cavalry, sent forward by Napoleon. Murat's men had suffered 1,500 casualties, but they had disrupted Bennigsen's attack, lifted the pressure on Augereau and Soult and won enough time for Davout to arrive on the French right.

At about 1pm Davout's corps had finally arrived. Napoleon ordered Davout and St. Hilaire to launch an attack on the Russian left, and after two hours of fighting the Russians were forced back and their line appeared to be close to breaking. They were saved by the arrival of Lestocq's Prussians, who had arrived on the Russian right. They were ordered to move around the back of the army and attacked Davout's unguarded right flank. Davout's corps was slowly pushed back and the Russians were given a second chance of success. If Davout's corps had been defeated then the only fresh French troops would have been the Guard Infantry - Soult's men had been under pressure all day and Augereau's corps had been battered.

The only remaining hope for the French was that Ney would arrive on their left. Napoleon sent orders calling him to Eylau at around 8am, but these only reached Ney at 2pm. The sounds of the battle hadn't reached Ney, who thus had no idea that a major conflict was underway. Ney thus didn't reach the battlefield until around 7pm, arriving on the left of the French line. Ney attacked the Russian right and pushed it back. His arrival also encouraged the rest of the French army, and the Russian attack on the French centre and right was halted.

Conclusion and Aftermath

By 10pm, several hours after nightfall, the battle finally came to a halt. That night both commanders prepared to retreat, but the Russians moved first. Napoleon was thus left in possession of the battlefield. This allowed him to claim that the battle had been a victory, but he was clearly aware that it had been a close run thing.

Neither side's casualties are certain. Napoleon claimed to have lost only 1,900 dead and 5,700 wounded, and to have inflicted 7,000 dead and 12,000-15,000 wounded on the Russians. This estimate of the French losses was far too low and helped support the saying 'to lie like a bulletin'. The French corps commanders admitted to far higher casualties - Davout to 5,007, Augereau to 5,200 not including prisoners, Soult to 8,250 killed and wounded. This brings the casualty figures to nearly 15,000, not including the cavalry. Augereau's losses were almost certainly higher than 5,200 and the general consensus is that the French lost around 25,000.

On the Russian side Bennigsen gave his casualties as 12,000 dead and 7,900 wounded - a total of 20,000. Curiously his losses are now generally said to have been only 15,000.

After the battle the Russians retreated towards their supply depots at Konigsberg. The French followed up slowly, winning a cavalry combat at Friedland. Further south they defeated Essen at Ostrolenka on 15 February. They also began the siege of Danzig, but by the end of February both armies finally went into winter quarters. Active campaigning didn't begin again until the summer of 1807 when Napoleon finally won the decisive battle he desired at Freidland (14 June 1807).

The battle of Eylau was the first significant setback suffered by Napoleon on the battlefield. The determination of the Russian army and the poor winter weather in Poland meant that he was unable to win that decisive victory. Napoleon's successes relied on his army's ability to move in a dispersed formation but to concentrate on the battlefield. At Eylau he was unable to achieve this, and for most of the battle the French were outnumbered. Of the three outlying corps that Napoleon was hoping to use only Davout arrived on time. Ney didn't arrive until very late in the battle and Bernadotte was never anywhere near the battlefield. The battle of Eylau revealed the first cracks in Napoleon's military reputation and greatly encouraged his opponents across Europe.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (17 September 2012), Battle of Eylau, 8 February 1807 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_eylau.html

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