Battle of Friedland, 14 June 1807

The Russian Attack and Heilsberg
From Heilsberg to Friedland
Battlefield
The Battle
The French Attack
Aftermath

The battle of Friedland (14 June 1807) was the final battle of the War of the Fourth Coalition, and was a major French victory that forced Tsar Alexander to begin peace talks. The Fourth Coalition emerged from the ruins of the Third, which had involved Austria, Russia and Britain. The Austrians and Russians had been crushingly defeated at Austerlitz, and the Austrians had withdrawn from the fight. The Prussians were forced to swap some territory and to join an alliance against Britain, but this was hugely unpopular. In August 1806 the Prussians finally declared war on Napoleon, but their main army was crushed in the twin battles of Auerstädt and Jena (14 October 1806). These defeats didn't officially knock Prussia out of the war, and the King and Queen retreated into the far east of their kingdom, where they joined up with their Russian allies.

Napoleon decided to continue the war into the winter of 1806-1807. During this campaign a series of Napoleon's plans misfired, but eventually he got the major battle he had been searching for. Unfortunately for Napoleon the resulting battle of Eylau (8 February 1807) was a very costly draw. This was Napoleon's first real setback, and he was forced to spend the winter in Poland reorganising his armies and recovering from the heavy losses at Eylau. The Prussians still held Danzig and Konigsberg on the Baltic, and the main French effort in the first few months of the year was a ponderous siege of Danzig (18 March-27 May 1808).

For most of the winter and spring the two armies faced each other on the Passarge and Alle Rivers. These two rivers rise close to each other and head north. In their upper reaches they run parallel to each other, but the Alle then turns to the north-east and the Passarge to the north-west. The French were established on the upper Alle and the upper and middle Passarge. The remaining Prussians were on the lower Passarge and the Russians on the middle and lower Alle. Napoleon thought that the Russians might have launched an attack in an attempt to save Danzig, but after the city surrendered on 27 May he discounted that possibility. Instead he focused his efforts on his own upcoming offensive, which was to begin on 10 June.

The Russian Attack and Heilsberg

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

Napoleon had misjudged Bennigsen, the Russian commander. Bennigsen realised that Marshal Ney was potentially dangerously isolated around Bergfriede and decided to try and trap him. The Russians made their move on 5 June, catching Napoleon by surprise. The Russian plan was too complex, with six separate columns involved. Some were given the task of pinning down the French on the Passarge while others were to envelope Ney. In addition Ney was especially good at the fighting retreat. He was able to juggle his forces and take advantage of the uneven progress of the various Russian columns to hold them up and then to escape to the Passarge. By the end of 6 June the Russian offensive had run out of steam, and on 7 June Bennigsen decided to order a retreat.

Napoleon reacted quickly to the Russian offensive. His troops were already preparing to move, and they soon began to pursue the Russians north along the Alle. The Russians retreated along right bank (east), the French on the left bank (west). Napoleon expected to find the Russians at Güttstadt, and Bennigsen had indeed planned to make his stand there, but then changed his mind. Instead the Russians continued their retreat, heading for their fortified camp at Heilsberg, just past the Alle's turn to the north-east. The Russians posted rearguards on both banks of the river, while the main French force followed up on the left bank.

Marshal Soult
Portrait of Marshal
Jean-de-Dieu Soult

On 10 June the two sides clashed around Heilsberg. The battle fell into three phases. In the first phase the Russian rearguards held up the French for several hours. In the second Soult's corps attacked the Russian fortifications around Heilsberg, and suffered a costly reverse. The third and final phase saw Lannes repeat Soult's mistakes, although his attack began at dusk and didn't last for long, limiting the casualties he took.

On the following day the French threatened to outflank the Russian position at Heilsberg, and Bennigsen decided to continue his retreat north-east down the Alle.

From Heilsberg to Friedland

Napoleon continued to misjudge his opponent. The direct route from Heilsberg to the key Allied base at Königsberg ran north from Heilsberg, in the area between the two rivers. Napoleon assumed that Bennigsen would move down the right side of the Alle, cross at Friedland, and head for the road junction at Domnau, west of the River. Napoleon decided that this gave him a chance to annihilate the Russian army. The main body of the French army set off on the road to Domnau. Murat and Soult were sent due north towards Königsberg, with orders to storm the city if they thought they could manage it. Davout linked the main army to Soult and Murat. Lannes was sent towards Friedland with orders to capture the river bridges and stop the Russians retreating east from Domnau.

As the French moved north the country they discovered that the Russians were not at Domnau. Napoleon made another mistake, this time assuming that the Russians would continue all the way down the Alle to its junction with the River Pregel, which flows west to Königsberg.  Lannes was ordered to occupy Friedland, secure the bridges, and send the mayor or other senior local official to Napoleon.

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

These orders meant that Lannes was heading into a dangerous position. On 13 June his corps and the main Russian army were both heading for Friedland, and Bennigsen soon realised that he had presented with another chance to defeat an isolated French corps. Lannes's advance guard were the first troops to reach Friedland, but the larger Russian advance guard arrived late on 13 June. After a cavalry skirmish at about 6pm the Russians occupied the town, and established a cavalry screen on the left bank of the Alle. French prisoners revealed that Lannes's advance guard was two miles away and the main body of V Corps even further back. This was when Bennigsen realised that he had a chance to defeat an isolated French corps.

Bennigsen and the leading part of the main Russian army began to arrive after 8pm.  Bennigsen ordered his troops across as they arrived, although the exact pace is unclear. The Russian Imperial Guard was across by the end of 13 June, along with a large force of cavalry. The sources disagree on how quickly the rest of the army crossed over - Chandler has 10,000 Russian troops on the left bank by dawn at 3.30am, others say 25,000.  

The overall Russian deployment is more clear. Prince Bagration and the advance guard, along with most of the cavalry, held the Russian left, around Sortlack. Platov's Cossacks, the Preobrazhensky Guard, the Cavalry of the Guard, the Finnish Dragoons and the Oliovopol Hussars were ordered north to guard the Russian right and seize crossing points over the Alle to the north of Friedland.

Lannes and Napoleon both reacted quickly to the news from Friedland. Lannes ordered Ruffin's cavalry brigade and part of Oudinot's grenadier division to rush towards Friedland, while he followed with Verdier's division and the rest of Oudinot's division. Napoleon sent Grouchy's dragoon division and Nansouty's cuirassier division to join Lannes.

Battlefield

The battlefield at Friedland was bordered on the east by the meandering River Alle, which flows from south to north past the town. The river ran north past the village of Sortlach, which would be at the southern edge of the battlefield. Just past the village it flowed through an 'S' bend, going east, then west, then east. The small town of Friedland sat on the north bank of this final eastern section. Just past the town the river turns north/ north-west and flows off of the battlefield. Friedland thus sat in a triangle of land with the river on two sides.

The western edge of the battlefield was marked by two further villages - Posthenen to the west of Friedland, and Heinrichsdorf to the north-west. Most of the area was open farmland, but there was one large forest, the Wood of Sortlach, in the area south-west of Sortlach village and south of Posthenen.

The entire battlefield was split in two by a stream, the Muhlen Teich, which flows east from Posthenen, runs past the northern side of Friedland, and runs into the Alle north-east of the town. To the north of the town the Muhlen Teich (Mill Stream) widened into a long narrow lake.  The Muhlen Teich was a major obstacle to movement between the two flanks of the Russian army. The Russians did build a few bridges across the stream, but they weren't enough.

The only permanent bridge across the Alle ran into the centre of Friedland. The Russians built three pontoon bridges across the Alle, but these also ran into Friedland. As a result the only way out for the Russians if they needed to retreat into the narrowing triangle and then though the narrow streets of Friedland.

This was thus a very dangerous position in which to fight a major set-piece battle. The Russians had a river at their back, with limited ways to cross, a battlefield split in two, and plenty of changes for the French to split their army into isolated pockets. This wasn't important early in the battle, when the Russians were attempting to defeat Lannes's isolated division, but it was of vital importance once Napoleon arrived with large parts of his army.

The Battle

The battle began at around 2am. Ruffin's cavalry and Oudinot's grenadiers advanced into the Sortlack Wood, where they engaged in a prolonged fight with Russian skirmishes from the Guard Infantry.

Grouchy arrived at around 3pm and entered the battle to the north of Soult. He found himself facing more numerous Russian forces, and was being forced back. At around 6pm a force of Dutch cavalry from Mortier's corps arrived, and helped restore the position.

On the Russian right another powerful cavalry force, under General Gorchakov, headed towards Heinrichsdorf. Grouchy sent Nansouty to deal with this threat, and then committed his own troops to the same battle. The cavalry fighting on this front lasted until around 9am, and ended with the French in possession of Heinrichsdorf.

Bennigsen had already missed his best chance to defeat Lannes. By 9am the French had 9,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry on the field, facing some 46,000 Russians. Lannes's task was to keep Bennigsen occupied, without running the risk of suffering a major defeat. He achieved this in part by spreading out a thick line of skirmishes, and moving the rest of his troops around to give the illusion of a larger force. Equally important was Bennigsen's apparent belief that he had all morning to deal with Lannes. As a result the chance was missed. Mortier's men began to arrive at around 9.30am, and by 10am Lannes had 40,000 men under his command.

In the meantime the Russians were busily deploying across the river. Gorchakov was given command of the forces north of the Mill Stream, consisting of the 3rd, 6th, 7th and 8th Divisions and the larger part of the Russian cavalry. Bagration and Kologribov were in command south of the stream, with the 1st and 2nd Divisions and a smaller cavalry force. The Russian Imperial  Guard and one standard division were kept in reserve. The six infantry divisions were formed in two lines. The front line consisted of the first and third battalions of each regiment in line and the second battalions behind them in columns. The second line was deployed in columns of battalions. The Cossacks guarded the right flank of the line. On the far left Bagration had 3,000 Jägers in the Woods of Sortlach, supported by two infantry battalions.

At about 9am the entire Russian line advanced around 1,000 paces to line up with the successful skirmishers at Sortlach. At the northern end of the line the Cossacks attacked around Heinrichsdorf, but they were repulsed by the cavalry from I and VI Corps, which arrived on the field just in time. A Russian infantry advance in the same direction ended when Mortier's corps arrived and took up a position at Heinrichsdorf.

The Russians had already missed their chance to defeat Lannes's isolated corps. Now they missed their chance to escape before the rest of Napoleon's army could arrive. Napoleon himself reached the battlefield at around noon and took command. He quickly drew up a plan for an attack that he hoped would allow him to destroy the Russian army.

The key to Napoleon's plan was the barrier of the Mill Stream. He hoped to attack with his right wing, and force the Russian left back into the narrow spit of land between the Alle and the stream. This would cut off the stronger Russian right and expose it to destruction (assuming that the Alle was un-fordable north of Friedland). Marshal Ney's corps, which was now approaching the battlefield, would take up the key position on the French right, between Posthenen and Sortlach. Lannes would shuffle to the left and form into two lines around Posthenen. Oudinot's division from Lannes's corps would slowly move left and try and distract the Russians. Mortier would form the French left, at Heinrichsdorf and on the road to Köngisberg. Mortier would be the hinge, staying in place, while Ney moved forward on the right. Marshal Victor's corps and the Imperial Guard would form the reserve. A strong cavalry force was posted on the French left, ready to harass the Russian right when it attempted to retreat. Napoleon was confident of victory, especially as the battle was to be fought on the anniversary of the Battle of Marengo.

The fighting died down between noon at 5pm. The French were waiting for their reinforcements to arrive, while the Russians were tired after a heavy day of marching of 13 June and the morning's efforts. Bennigsen could have slipped away during this pause, but instead he stayed in place. At about 4pm when Victor and the Imperial Guard began to appear he changed his mind, and he ordered a retreat. These sensible orders were soon cancelled, and the Russians remained in place. As the afternoon draw on they became increasingly hopeful that it was too late for a French attack. If Napoleon had decided to wait until his army was fully concentrated and attack on the following day, then the Russians could have slipped away overnight.

The French Attack

The signal for the French attack was a salvo from 20 guns. Most sources say this came at 5.30pm, although some place it at 5.00. This was followed by a full scale artillery bombardment.

Ney had drawn up his attack force in three large clearings in the woods. Marchand's Division was on the right, Bisson's division on the left and Latour-Maubourg's cavalry in the centre rear. This powerful force cleared the woods by 6pm and then attacked the Russian troops around Sortlach. The Russians were forced out of Sortlach village, and retreated into the loop of the Alle. Marchand pursued the fleeing Russians, and a gap opened up between his division and Bisson's. The Russians launched a cavalry attack into the gap, but this was hit from three sides - Latour-Maubourg's cavalry hit in the front and the two infantry divisions from the side. The Russian retreated, and Marchand returned from inside the loop to close up with Bisson. The French were now in a strong position, with Ney's leading troops across the narrow gap between the Alle and the Mill Stream. In order to take advance Napoleon ordered Victor's corps to advance to the south of the road to Eylau, left of Ney's advancing troops.

As Ney's two divisions advanced they came under heavy artillery fire from Russian guns on the far side of the Alle. They also came under fire from Bagration's men outside Friedland, and began to waver. Bagration then launched an attack with his reserve cavalry, which was able to cross the Mill Stream and hit the French left. Ney's men began to fall back in some disarray, and the Russians even captured the eagle of the 69th Line.

Ney was saved from further embarrassment by Victor's corps. First to arrive was Dupont's Division, which rushed into the gap on Ney's left and helped stabilise the line. Latour-Mauborg, Lahoussaye and Durosnel's cavalry then attacked and the Russian cavalry fell back.

This was followed by one of the more unusual events of the battle. General Senarmont, chief of artillery in Victor's Corps, led the advance. Senarmont formed two batteries of 15 guns and posted them on either side of Dupont's advance. The French artillery opened fire at 1,600 yards, but then advanced to 600 paces, then 300 paces, and eventually to within 60 paces. During this phase of the battle Senarmont's guns fired 3,000 rounds. The Russian infantry was devastated by this close range artillery fire. The Russian cavalry attempted to intervene, but was destroyed by a volley of close-range grapeshot. Bagration ordered his men to retreat into Friedland, pursued by the French.

North of the Mill Stream General Gorchakov launched an attack with his four divisions, hoping to lift the pressure on Bagration's men. Gorchakov's men were opposed by Lannes and Mortier's corps and Grouchy's cavalry, and were unable to make any progress. Napoleon also committed part of the Guard to this fight, to make sure that the Russians didn't retreat too soon.

By 7.30pm the French right had advanced so far that the Russian artillery had to fire into Friedland town. This caused fires that spread to the bridges, leaving the Russians trapped on the left bank. Ney's men fought their way into the town by around 8pm, and large numbers of Russians drowned attempting to swim across the river. Bennigsen committed the Russian Imperial Guard to the battle in Friedland, but without success. This attracted the attention of several French writers, who commented on the height of the Russian guardsmen.

By now Gorchakov realised that his line of retreat was under threat. He sent two divisions to try and recapture Friedland, and they were able to capture the eastern part of the town. However they found the pontoon bridge in this area on fire.

Marshal Joachim Murat
Marshal Joachim Murat

The Russians were saved from total disaster by the discovery of a ford at Kloschenen, downstream from Friedland. This was just passable by artillery, and the Russians were able to use the escaping guns to line the right bank of the river. Grouchy and d'Espagne's 40 cavalry squadrons were sent to try and stop the Russians from escape, but failed to make much impression. Murat's absence was noted by many, and the general belief was that he wouldn't have allowed the Russians to escape. The fighting finally died down at around 11pm.

Aftermath

Although Napoleon hadn’t quite achieved the destruction of the Russian army, he had won a major victory. The French lost around 8,000 men, the Russians around 20,000 killed and wounded. This was probably around a third of the Russian army, and the news convinced Tsar Alexander that he needed to seek peace.

The French crossed the Alle at Friedland on 15 June, after repairing the main river bridge. Konigsberg fell on 16 June, and by 19 June Murat's cavalry had reached the Niemen near Tilset. On the same day an envoy from the Tsar reached Napoleon's headquarters, and an armistice was agreed. This came into effect on 23 June.

Friedland was a great French victory, but it wasn't one of Napoleon's best. He was lucky that the Russians hadn’t been more aggressive when Lannes was standing alone, and a large part of his army never took part in the battle, having been sent north to Konigsberg. Bennigsen had played a major part in the French victory by choosing to fight on such terrible ground.

The most famous result of the battle of Friedland was the meeting between Napoleon and Tsar Alexander on a raft in the Neimen at Tilset. The resulting peace of Tilset could be said to mark the high point of Napoleon's career. Napoleon's diplomatic task was made easier by the helpless state of Prussia. He was able to be remarkably generous to the Russians in an attempt to win over Alexander, while at the same time humiliating Frederick William of Prussia. In a series of secret clauses the two Emperors agreed to split Europe into French and Russian spheres of influence. The Russians were given Finland and the French abandoned their Turkish allies. In return the Tsar agreed to join the Continental System and try to convince the Danes and Swedes to join. In contrast the Prussians lost Hesse Cassel and all possessions west of the Elbe (these went to the new Kingdom of Westphalia). In the east Prussia's Polish provinces were formed into a new Grand Duchy of Warsaw, officially ruled by the King of Saxony, but in reality by the French. Danzig began a free city under French control. The French also kept the fortress of Magdeburg. Prussia was reduced to her borders of 1772. Napoleon's dominant position in Continental Europe would hardly be challenged (outside Spain) until his own disastrous invasion of Russia of 1812.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 October 2015), Battle of Friedland, 14 June 1807 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_friedland.html

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