- James Houser
February 8, 1807 - Battle of Eylau
Updated: Jun 1, 2021
February 8, 1807. Near the town of Eylau, in the midst of a raging blizzard, Napoleon and his Grande Armee duke it out with the armies of Tsarist Russia. The result is one of the most brutal and grim battles of the Napoleonic Wars.
In 1806, a coalition of countries - Britain, Prussia, and Russia - had united to try and drive Napoleon and his powerful French armies out of Germany. Napoleon was determined not to give his enemies the time to gather their forces. In October, Napoleon barreled into Prussia with shocking speed and ferocity, smashing the Prussian Army - supposedly the best in Europe - at the Battles of Jena and Auerstadt. Setting his cavalry loose, Napoleon overran the whole country of Prussia, capturing its capital of Berlin and driving its King into exile. In less than a month, Prussia was totally out of the war, save for some small forces in the hinterlands. It was Napoleon's greatest triumph to date, and left the Russians all alone to contend with the Emperor as he moved into Poland.
By December 1806, the French were in winter quarters across Poland. The Russian armies had arrived too late to save Prussia from almost total defeat, but they had taken up their own positions. Armies rarely fought in the dead of winter before modern times, especially in relatively undeveloped areas like Poland - the roads were poor, food was scarce, the areas were vast, and movement was slow and clumsy as a result. Winter made everything even worse.
Despite these obstacles, Russian General Levin August von Bennigsen - of German origin - decided to try a winter campaign. He lurched into action against Napoleon's northern flank, catching some French units by surprise and driving them before him. As he marched west, smelling victory, he was walking into a trap. Bennigsen's move had caught Napoleon by surprise, but nobody was better at turning crisis into opportunity than the Emperor of France. Napoleon ordered the French commanders to let Bennigsen chase them so that he could move north, cut him off, and destroy him. When one of Bennigsen's scouts captured a copy of the order, though, he beat a quick retreat, Napoleon hot on his heels.
The Russians were finally brought to bay on February 8 at a small village in East Prussia known as Eylau. The weather was terrible - snowstorms continued all day - and visibility poor. When Bennigsen's artillery began to bombard the French positions, Napoleon realized he meant to stand and fight. Calling in reinforcements from his lieutenants, some of which would take hours to arrive, the Emperor decided to attack Bennigsen before he was attacked. The Battle of Eylau had begun.
Napoleon began with a sharp attack against the Russian right, but due to the snowstorms the attack lost its way, accidentally straying into the path of French artillery fire then colliding by accident with the well-defended Russian center. The 7th Corps of Marshal Augereau was shredded by point-blank cannon fire (a 70-gun battery, truly massive) and musketry, and collapsed back to the rear. The Russians surged forward to exploit their victory, and Napoleon himself was nearly captured, but coolly led a counterattack by his Imperial Guard that pulverized the attacking Russians.
At this point, Napoleon's position was critical; until his reinforcements arrived, his center was vulnerable. He had to buy time. He called up Marshal Murat, his cavalry commander, and ordered the cavalry to charge. All of them.
Murat rounded up over 10,000 cavalrymen and led them in a massive arrowhead right into the Russian position. Obscured by the snowstorm, they surged into the lines before Bennigsen knew what had hit him. Wheeling and slashing their way through, Murat's troopers caused disorder and panic in the Russian ranks before breaking loose and heading back to French lines. Though they had lost 25% of their number, they had saved the army. Their reinforcements had arrived.
Up from the south came Marshal Davout, the icy, brilliant and ruthless infantry commander. He hurled his 15,000 men in a shocking attack against the Russian left, driving it back until it bent in like a fishhook. On the Russian right, Marshal Ney began hacking away at the exhausted troops there. It seemed like the Russians were about to be swallowed on both sides. But they, too, had reinforcements coming.
Out of the blizzard came the Prussian division of General L'Estocq, the last mangled rump of the Prussian Army that had survived the 1806 campaign. L'Estocq had heard the echo of cannonfire hours earlier and, on his own initiative, force-marched his troops to the sound of guns. Arriving from the north in the nick of time, he passed completely around the Russian rear to strike Davout at the critical moment of the battle. Davout was able to hold him off, but the French drive had lost its momentum.
Night fell, and in the night the Russians slipped away - battered, beaten, but not broken. Napoleon had gained a slight victory, but failed to accomplish his objective of destroying the Russian Army.
The battlefield of Eylau the next day was a horrorshow. One of the most brutal and desperate battles of the war thus far, both sides suffered devastating losses. The French lost almost 30% of their force; the Russians, despite their defeat, suffered less thanks to fighting on the defensive. Either way, the field was a grim tableau of bloody snow, heaped bodies, and mud.
Eylau was a contrast to Napoleon's earlier campaigns - which had been rapid, decisive, completely successful. Even if it was a slim victory, he had been hitting home runs since 1796 - even a successful bunt seemed like a failure based on his record. Unlike in 1805 when he took the Austrians apart in a matter of weeks and 1806 when he bulldozed the Prussians in less than a month, the Russians were a different problem - his magic did not work so well on them. Eylau was the first sign to Europe that maybe, just maybe, there was a chance the Emperor was not invincible - that he could be beaten.
But not this year. Eylau was not the end of things. Within four months, Napoleon and Bennigsen met again at Friedland - and this time the blizzard would not save him. Napoleon kicked the Russians apart like a Lego set and forced the Tsar to come to terms. Eylau, though, was a sign of trouble for the French Emperor. Soon he would fight the Russians again - and it would look a lot more like the bitter carnage of Eylau than the victories he expected. 1812 was not far off.
The best popular biography of Napoleon is Andrew Roberts' Napoleon: A Life (New York: Penguin, 2014) easily available in print, Ebook, and audible. For the Napoleonic Wars in general, Alexander Mikaberidze's brand-new The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History (London: Oxford University Press, 2020) has gotten rave reviews.