Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout, duc d'Auerstädt, prince d'Eckmühl, 1770-1823

Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout, duc d'Auerstädt, prince d'Eckmühl (1770-1823) was one of the most capable of Napoleon's marshals, and earned the nickname of the 'Iron Marshal' because of the strict discipline he imposed on his men.

Davout was born at Annoux on 10 May 1770. His father was Jean-Françous d'Avout, a cadet member of the aristocratic d'Avout family and his mother, Catherine de Somme, was a member of a Burgundian noble family. He entered the Ecole royale militaire at Auxerre at the age of nine, and graduated in September 1785. This was followed by two years as a gentleman cadet at the Ecole militaire in Paris, before in 1788 he was commissioned as a second lieutenant his father's regiment, the Royal Champagne Cavalry Regiment.

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

Despite his aristocratic background the young Davout was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution. This led to a brief spell of imprisonment in the citadel of Arras, before on 15 September 1791 he was dismissed from the army. He returned home where he joined the 3rd Battalion of Yonne Volunteers. Although he enlisted as a common soldier he was soon elected lieutenant-colonel, making him second in command of the new battalion. The colonel of the regiment was a politician, so Davout was responsible for the military side of the battalion.

The new regiment joined the Army of the North before the outbreak of war. In April 1792 war finally broke out with Austria and Prussia. At about this time the young d'Avout changed the spelling of his name to Davout to remove the aristocratic taint. He first came to prominence for his performance at the battle of Neerwinden (18 March 1793), an Austrian victory, where he commanded the 3rd Battalion. He was promoted to colonel on 1 May 1793 and to general de brigade on 3 July 1793, but at the same time the reign of terror was cutting its way through the aristocracy. In order to avoid the same fate Davout resigned his commission on 29 August 1793 and retired to Burgundy.

As a result he survived the Terror and when the Jacobins fell on 27 July 1794. Davout asked to rejoin the army, and on 11 October 1794 he was commissioned as a general de brigade. He was appointed to command a cavalry brigade in the Army of the Moselle. He served on the Rhine and in the north until the Armistice of Leoben ended the fighting in April 1797, only leaving Britain still at war with France.

After abandoning any attempts to cross the channel at this date the French decided to send an expedition to Egypt in an attempt to strike towards the heart of the British Empire in the east. Napoleon was given command of this expedition, which set sail in May 1798. Davout served under General Louis-Charles Desaix during this expedition, and took part in his campaign in Upper Egypt as commander of Desaix's cavalry (1798-99). He then served under Napoleon during the repulse of a Turkish army at Aboukir in 1799. Davout remained in Egypt until the spring of 1800, but he was able to return to France after the treaty of El Arish.

Davout reached Toulon on 6 May 1800, to find his former commander had become First Consul of France. Davout was promoted to general of division on 3 July 1800 and given command of the cavalry in the Army of Italy. He commanded the cavalry at the battle of Monzambano (25-26 December 1800), and played a major part in the French victory at that battle.

Once again the war began to wind down. The Second Coalition came to an end after the Treaty of Lunéville (8 February 1801), and the war with Britain was temporarily ended by the Peace of Amiens (March 1802). During this period Davout courted and married Louise-Aimée-Julie Leclerc (marrying on 9 November 1801), the sister of General Charles Leclerc, husband of Napoleon's sister Pauline. This helped move Davout into the Imperial circle.

During the period of peace Davout became inspector general of cavalry, then commander of the Foot Grenadiers of the Consular Guard, before in August 1803 being given command of the army camp at Bruges.

As war with Britain began to loom once again Davout's camp became the III Corps of the new Grande Armée. On 19 May 1804, the day after Napoleon made himself Emperor, he created the first batch of new Marshals of France since the revolution. Davout was the youngest officer to be made a marshal in this first group.

In the summer of 1805 Britain, Austria and Russia formed the Third Coalition. Napoleon reacted quickly, marching from the English Channel to the Rhine and then into southern Germany. An Austrian army under Field Marshal Mack was forced to surrender at Ulm, and the French then advanced to the Danube, where Davout's III Corps occupied Vienna. Napoleon led most of his army north across the Danube ready to face the Russians. When it became clear that Napoleon was going to get the battle he was hoping for at Austerlitz Davout was summoned from Vienna, and his men marched seventy days in forty-six hours to take up a position on the French right wing. Davout's tired men played a major part in defeating the main Russian attack (arriving on the battlefield one division at a time on the day of the battle), allowing Napoleon to strike in the centre and win a crushing victory. In the aftermath of the battle the Austrians left the war (Treaty of Pressburg, 26 December 1805).

In the summer of 1806 Prussia decided to enter the war against France. The war was decided by two battles fought on the same day. At Jena Napoleon, with the main French army, defeated the smaller part of the Prussia army. At the same time, at Auerstadt, Davout's outnumbered III Corps defeated the main Prussian army under the Duke of Brunswick. At first Napoleon refused to believe he had been fighting the smaller Prussian force, but he did later acknowledge Davout's achievement. Two years later, when Davout was made a duke, he took Auerstädt as his title. The high regard in which he was held was also demonstrated by his appointment as colonel general of the Foot Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard. On the day after the battle Napoleon issued a bulletin in which he stated that 'Marshal Davout's corps performed wonders' - sometimes Napoleon could give credit when it was due.

Although the Prussians had been defeated on the battlefield and much of Prussia occupied, the King refused to surrender and took refuge with the Russians. Napoleon was forced into a winter campaign in Poland. Davout took part in the early battle of Golymin (26 December 1806), where the Russians held off a larger French army. Davout's III Corps formed the right wing of Napoleon's army at the battle of Eylau (7 February 1807), and was successful on his flank (as at Austerlitz Davout's corps arrived after the battle had already begun), but overall the battle was a draw. It ended the winter campaign, but when the fighting began again in the spring the French were victorious at Friedland (14 June 1807). Davout missed this battle, as his corps was one days march too far away and Napoleon had realised that the Russians were in a very dangerous position with their backs to a river. This defeat forced Tsar Alexander to the negotiating table, and the Treaty of Tilsit ended the war with Prussia and Russia.

One of the effects of the Treaty of Tilsit was the formation of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, a semi-independent Polish state officially ruled by the King of Saxony, but actually controlled by Napoleon's governor-general. Davout was appointed to that post, which he held for two years. His reputation suffered because of the harsh nature of his rule in Poland, although his position was made more difficult by Napoleon's refusal to recreate a fully independent Kingdom of Poland.

In 1809 war with Austria broke out once again. Davout still had III Corps with him in Germany, and formed the northern wing of Napoleon's initial deployment. At this point Berthier had been in overall command, with Napoleon issuing orders from Paris, and the French armies were very badly out of position. Davout was in real danger of being overwhelmed by around 80,000 Austrians under the Archduke Charles, but Napoleon rapidly rearranged his armies. The Austrians did launch an attack on Davout's isolated corps (battle of Teugn-Hausen or Tengen, 19 April 1809), but this was a poorly organised and sluggish attack and was defeated by Davout's rearguard. Soon afterwards Lefebvre's VII Corps joined up with Davout, and the danger of a crushing Austrian victory was gone. Davout also played a major part at the battle of Eggmühl or Eckmühl, another French victory, but he was unable to prevent the Archduke Charles and most of his army escaping across the Danube. In August 1809 Davout was made Prince d'Eckmühl in acknowledgement of his role in the battle.

Victory at Eckmühl didn't end the war. Instead Napoleon found himself in possession of Vienna while the Austrians held the north bank of the Danube against him. His first attempt to cross the river was defeated at Aspern-Essling (21-22 May 1809). Davout's III Corps was to cross the Danube on the second day of the battle, but the bridge over the Danube was blocked and the French had to retreat back to the south bank. 

Napoleon learnt from his mistakes, and the second attack was much better organised. The resulting battle of Wagram (6 July 1809) was Napoleon's last truly significant battlefield victory, and once against Davout commanded on the French right. His corps was one of the first to cross to the north bank of the Danube and helped secure the French bridgehead before the Austrians had really realised what was going on. On the second day of the battle Davout was the target of the early Austrian counterattack. After this had been repulsed he went onto the offensive, but the Austrians fought hard and Davout's horse was shot from under him. Davout's men were able to advance, and played a part in forcing the Austrians into a full scale retreat.

Davout also took part in the last battle of the war, at Znaim on 10-11 July 1809. Soon after this the Austrians once again asked for peace. This time Napoleon wasn’t able to use the pause in fighting in central Europe to recover his losses, as the ongoing struggle in Spain and Portugal continued to eat into his armies. Davout spent this period in administrative roles in Germany.

Russia 1812 - The Road to Moscow
Russia 1812
The Road to Moscow

Napoleon didn't return to the battlefield in person until the 1812 invasion of Russia. Davout was given command of I Corps of the Grande Armeé, which began the campaign 70,000 strong. This was the best trained and disciplined of the corps, just behind the Imperial Guard, and kept its shape until well into the retreat. Davout even concerned himself with the packing of the soldier's knapsacks. 

Davout was given several semi-independent commands in the first stage of the campaign when Napoleon attempted to defeat Barclay de Tolly and Bagration before they could unite, but despite Davout's best efforts these attacks all failed. One did lead to Davout's first battle of the campaign, when he succesfuly blocked Bagration's men at Mogilev (23 July 1812), but even this success backfired - when the news reached Barclay de Tolly he abandoned plans to stand and fight and once again slipped away from Napoleon. During this period Davout argued with Napoleon's brother Jerome, whose slow movements had caused the failure of at least two manoeuvres. After this argument Jerome resigned from command of his army and returned home to Westphalia. Davout would also argue with Murat just before Borodino.

Davout fought at Smolensk, where Napoleon missed a chance to force a major battle on the Russians. He commanded in the right-centre of the line at Borodino. He suggested that Napoleon should launch a wide outflanking movement around the exposed Russian left wing, but Napoleon turned down this advance, believing it to be too much of a gamble.

Davout was wounded early in the fighting. The first reports to reach Napoleon suggested that the wound was mortal, but this was false and after recovering from the initial shock Davout remained in command of his corps throughout the attacks on the Bagration Redoubts. When the Russian line appeared to be close to breaking Davout sent several messengers to Napoleon to ask for the Guard to be committed, but without success.

Davout recovered from his wounds during the Army's fatal five week long stay in Moscow. At the start of the retreat from Moscow his corps formed the rearguard, and at first it retained its discipline as other parts of the army began to crumble. Davout's I Corps suffered heavy losses at the battle of Fiedovoisky (3 November 1812), losing 5,000 of the 20,000 men then believed to be in his corps. After this I Corps was never the same again, and Ney had to take over the rearguard. Davout's corps suffered again at the second battle of Krasnyi (15-18 November 1812), when Davout's personal baggage and his marshal's baton.

By the time the survivors of the army escaped from Russia only a few hundred of Davout's original 70,000 men were still with the colours.

Early in 1813 Davout was given command of the French and allied troops on the lower Elbe, and ordered to recapture Hamburg (evacuated by Carra St. Cyr). He captured the city in May 1813 and it became his headquarters. He was even less popular as governor of Hamburg than he had been in Poland, and became known as the 'Hamburg Robespierre'. After Napoleon's defeat at Leipzig (16-19 October 1813) the advancing Allies bypassed Hamburg. Davout, with XIII Corps, was isolated in the city and besieged. Davout was able to hold out for the rest of the war, and only surrendered the city on 11 May 1814, over a month after Napoleon's first abdication.

After the first Bourbon restoration Davout was forbidden to enter Paris. He rallied to Napoleon at the start of the Hundred Days in 1815, but was then appointed Minister of War. As a result one of Napoleon's best battlefield commanders missed the Battle of Waterloo, where high quality French commanders were in rather short supply. Davout urged Napoleon to fight on after Waterloo, but it was quickly clear that the Emperor had no support in Paris and he abdicated for the second time. Davout made an effort to defend Paris against the advancing Allies, but soon became clear that Napoleon's cause had collapsed.

After the second Bourbon restoration Davout was exiled to Louviers and kept under surveillance. He was allowed to return to his home in June 1816 and finally restored to favour in August 1817 when his pay and rank were restored. In 1819 he was appointed to Chamber of Peers, but he died at the comparatively young age of 53 on 1 June 1823.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (27 May 2014), Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout, duc d'Auerstädt, prince d'Eckmühl, 1770-1823 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_davout.html

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