- James Houser
October 14, 1806 - The Battles of Jena & Auerstadt
Updated: Jun 13, 2021
October 14, 1806. The Prussian generals were pretty confident about beating the French, until the Emperor Napoleon and his Grande Armee came barreling across the border like the Tasmanian Devil and sent them into a panic. Today, the Prussians will encounter Napoleon at Jena and Auerstadt, and in one of the most total victories in military history the Emperor will tear them to shreds. THIS is why everyone was scared to death of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The year 1805 had started with Emperor Napoleon and his French Empire facing a coalition of European states determined to put him in his place. Great Britain, Austria, and Russia had all combined to defeat the upstart French menace. With his plans to invade Britain overturned thanks to Lord Nelson and the Royal Navy, Napoleon turned the army he had raised for that purpose east for two of the most brilliant and famous military campaigns of human history. Napoleon had swiftly surrounded the Austrian army of General Mack at Ulm, forcing him to surrender without even a major battle. The Emperor had moved on to capture Vienna, then in December 1805 had inflicted a jaw-dropping defeat on the Austrian/Russian armies at Austerlitz. The Russian Tsar said mournfully after this defeat, “We are like babes in the hands of a giant.”
With Napoleon triumphant, Austria had no choice but to drop out of the war. Napoleon’s peace terms were harsh. The ancient Holy Roman Empire, over a thousand years old, was utterly dissolved. Austria was forced to give up large stretches of territory to France. Napoleon set about reordering Germany to his whim, creating a series of German puppet states under the “Confederation of the Rhine” that would basically function as part of the French Empire. Besides his military brilliance and organizational prowess, what made Napoleon such a terrifying figure to Europe’s elites was this total disregard for limits. Napoleon would redraw the map of Europe whenever he wanted, as he saw fit, with no concern for who he pissed off. And in so doing, he pissed off Prussia.
Prussia, the most powerful German state besides Austria, had sat on the sidelines during Napoleon’s rise to power even as everyone else tried to stop the Emperor’s advance. During the campaigns of 1805, Britain, Austria and Russia had tried and failed to bring Prussia in on their side – but King Frederick William III had vacillated. Frederick William had none of his great-uncle Frederick the Great’s decisiveness, cunning or ability. When faced with a choice, Frederick William would be wracked by indecision until events had spun out of control. So while the King of Prussia sat in his court in Berlin, unable to decide whether or not to join the war against Napoleon, the Emperor of France was off punching everybody in the teeth. By then it was too late. Frederick William could have made a decisive contribution to the war if he had attacked Napoleon before Austerlitz – but he didn’t.
It wasn’t like Napoleon was blind to the threat. Napoleon had offered Prussia an alliance, as well as the French-held territory of Hanover. Hanover was a German state that the Kings of Great Britain had held for generations and which the French had seized after Britain’s declaration of war in 1803. Napoleon was happy to dangle this territory in Frederick William’s face as his armies smashed across central Europe. But after Austerlitz, with Austria out of the war, Napoleon no longer needed to worry so much about the Prussians. Together, the other nations of Europe were a major threat, but Napoleon knew he could defeat them alone.
Throughout the early months of 1806, then, Napoleon frequently alarmed and offended the Prussian court. First, his cavalier destruction of the Holy Roman Empire and unilateral reordering of Europe alarmed this sidelined great power, especially since they got nothing out of the deal. Second, Napoleon browbeat multiple German states into cancelling their trade agreements with Prussia, which enraged the court in Berlin. Finally, Napoleon opened a secret channel to try and persuade Britain to make peace – with the territory of Hanover on the table as a bargaining chip. The British had no particular use for Hanover, but when Prussia found out they were furious since Napoleon had promised the territory to them.
Prussia was soon gripped by war fever and began searching for allies. Britain was always ready to sign on, and the Russians were still technically at war with France. Soon Napoleon got wind of Prussia’s preparations for war and began making plans of his own. As Prussian Army officers publicly sharpened their swords in front of the French embassy, a clear statement of masculine bravado, the Prussian King mustered his forces. Frederick William was finally convinced to go to war by his beautiful and strong-willed Queen, Marie-Louise, who Napoleon often referred to as “the only man in Prussia.” Marie-Louise was such a domineering force in the Prussian court that rumor had it the queen had refused her body to the king until he agreed to make war on Napoleon. Whatever the actual story here, Marie-Louise was clearly decisive in Frederick William’s decision to prepare for war.
With the inclusion of 20,000 men from the allied state of Saxony, the Prussians could put almost 200,000 men into the field – no small feat. The Prussian Army had long held respect as the best army in Europe, a reputation harkening back to the days of King Frederick the Great in the 1750s. Frederick (who I WILL talk about this year) had continuously outmaneuvered and outfought his opponents through great skill and daring, and had built an unrivalled land army. The trouble with Frederick’s system was that it required a great leader at its helm, and that it was so respected that no one wanted to change it. The Prussian Army was stuck, in mindset and in theory, in the 1750s – but a lot had changed since then. The council of ancient generals who ran the Prussian Army, many of whom had actually served under Frederick, were so confident in their reputation that they had seen little reason to change anything.
The Prussian Army began gathering in late September near Erfurt in central Germany, an aggressively “forward” position that clearly signaled their intent to strike. However, as the troops filed in and the generals began debating, it was clear that no one knew what to do next. King Frederick William certainly wasn’t going to make the call, since he had no military experience or personality to speak of. Duke Ferdinand of Brunswick, technically the commander-in-chief, was 71 years old and barely knew what was going on. His chief of staff, the brilliant young Gerhard von Scharnhorst, proposed a defensive position and fighting retreat to link up with the Russians – but no one listened to him. The Prussian Army would be arguing about what to do right up to the point that Napoleon struck.
And Napoleon was going to strike. While the Prussians thought they were being slick and hiding their movements, it was impossible to ignore what they were up to. On September 18, Napoleon ordered his own armies to begin gathering in Germany. This was accomplished quickly and efficiently by his capable generals, all of whom were a good twenty or more years younger than their Prussian counterparts. On October 7, Napoleon received an ultimatum from Frederick William: leave Germany or it was war. Tossing it over his shoulder, Napoleon chose war, and launched his army into an invasion literally a day later. 200,000 men exploded into motion, driving northeast – headed straight for Berlin.
The speed and violence of Napoleon’s attack caught the Prussian Army completely off guard. They had not expected him to be ready for war so quickly, or to move with such aggression. Even worse, Napoleon’s route was threatening to slice right between the Prussian Army and the capital of Berlin before they could react. Napoleon had chosen this maneuver precisely because it would A.) place him in the path of any Russian reinforcements and B.) force the Prussians to come to him. He didn’t know exactly where they were, and he wanted to draw the Prussian Army out so he could find them and defeat them.
Napoleon’s innovations in war became clear in this campaign, almost more than in any other. Napoleon had not introduced new technology, clever new tactics, or a better-trained soldier. This is honestly fascinating and I could go into it all day. What Napoleon brought to warfare was vastly superior command, control, and organization. All military forces have a nervous system, a method by which a leader controls and directs their forces. Napoleon turned his army almost into an extension of his own mind through a well-organized system of staff officers, planners, couriers and signals. It is no small feat to control 200,000 men with nothing but people galloping back and forth on horses, but this is what Napoleon built, and it would come to the fore here.
Napoleon moved his army in a series of new organizations known as “army corps”, a term of his own invention. Each corps was a self-contained army in miniature with infantry, cavalry, and artillery, commanded by a general with a direct line to the Emperor. Napoleon crossed into Saxony on October 7 with his army in the “battalion square”, with army corps arrayed left, right, and forward in an arrowhead shape and his own headquarters and Imperial Guard at the center. Since he didn’t know exactly where the Prussians were, whichever corps made contact would send a message to all the other corps, which would compel them to turn and come to its assistance, landing on the flank of the Prussian force.
Enough jargon for now. Napoleon came bursting across the border like the Kool-Aid Man, aiming for the town of Gera, where he assumed the Prussians would concentrate their army. The Prussians, panicking, sent their army east as fast as possible to try and intercept Napoleon. Along the road to Gera lie the small towns of Jena and Auerstadt in the valley of the Saale River, and the Duke of Brunswick aimed his Prussians at those points. He sent Prince Frederick Hohenlohe towards Jena, and led the bulk of the army towards Auerstadt, in the hope of catching Napoleon unaware.
Thanks to cavalry skirmishes and a couple of small battles – including Marshal Jean Lannes’ savaging of the Prussian advance guard at Saalfeld on October 10 – Napoleon finally gained a read on where the Prussians were. They were advancing slowly, ponderously, towards his left flank. Like a snake going after a rat, Napoleon’s battalion square swung into motion. Napoleon himself led the force that was headed for Jena, while his 1st and 3rd Corps, under Marshals Jean Bernadotte and Louis Nicolas Davout, headed for Auerstadt. Napoleon guessed that the main Prussian army would be at Jena, and only wanted Davout to establish a blocking position preventing their escape.
Napoleon and the first units of his army arrived near Jena on October 13. After learning that the Prussian army was camped on the plateau nearby, he decided to rest his men and prepare for battle on the 14th. He only had about 40,000 men on hand, while the Prussians had 60,000; thanks to his superior command and control infrastructure, though, he knew that more forces were on their way and knew when they would arrive. The Prussian General Hohenlohe heard the cries of “Vive l’Empereur” as he tried to sleep that night. This cry worried him, since he had assumed he faced only a screening or advance force – not the main French army. How the hell had Napoleon moved so quickly?
As the morning of October 14, 1806, dawned foggy and cool, the French and Prussian armies swung into action at Jena. Napoleon still believed he faced the main Prussian force, rather than only half, while Hohenlohe had learned too late that he faced the Emperor himself. At 0600, the battle of Jena commenced, with the French troops storming forward with musket and bayonet to capture several outlying villages. A fierce infantry battle ensued that drove back the Prussian advance units, and as cannon boomed and smoke mixed with fog across the fields of Germany the French units managed to capture the villages. Napoleon rode back and forth across his line in his long blue coat and bicorn hat, receiving reports and sending out calm orders and missives.
As the morning continued, however, one of Napoleon’s generals nearly ruined the whole plan. Marshal Ney, the impetuous redhead who commanded 6th Corps, arrived on the battlefield and immediately launched an unauthorized attack. This brash move was initially successful, but Ney’s men soon found themselves in an artillery crossfire. Recognizing his opportunity, Hohenlohe ordered a counterattack, and soon Ney’s Frenchmen were under pressure from three sides. Napoleon, cursing Ney, ordered the troops of Marshal Lannes in to rescue Ney, whose “Leeroy Jenkins” move might yet cost him the battle.
At about this time, Napoleon received a message from Marshal Davout to the north, claiming that he had run into the main body of the Prussian army at Auerstadt. Napoleon scoffed; obviously the main Prussian army was *here.* He sent the messenger back to “tell your Marshal he is seeing double!”, a snide reference to Davout’s spectacles.
Davout was not seeing double. Louis Nicholas Davout, 36 years old, was by a decent margin the best of Napoleon’s generals. Cold, stern, and reserved, he famously wore a set of owlish glasses that along with his balding head reflected every glance of the sun. Davout was the ice to Ney’s fire. Respected, feared, admired, but never loved, he was hard on everyone, even himself. His troops were the best fed, disciplined, and cared for in Napoleon’s army. In his entire career, he was never defeated. And Auerstadt would be his finest hour.
At the same time that Napoleon was starting the battle of Jena 14 miles to the south, Davout’s corps of 26,000 men had collided with the main Prussian body of 60,000 commanded by the Duke of Brunswick and accompanied by King Frederick William himself. Davout quickly deployed his leading division before the fog could lift, and soon began to beat back the Prussian cavalry charges of General Blucher one after another.
The situation soon became desperate: the obvious Prussian superiority in numbers was soon threatening to overwhelm Davout’s lone corps. In desperation, he sent off messengers to both Napoleon and to Marshal Bernadotte, commander of the nearby 1st Corps. Even though Bernadotte could hear the firing, he made no move to march to Davout’s aid – an inexcusable betrayal that caused him to fall permanently out of favor with Napoleon.
Meanwhile, at Jena, Napoleon had finally extricated Marshal Ney and revived control of the situation. With his quickly arriving reinforcements, he ordered a strike on both flanks, and the Prussian army began to fold into a “u” shape. The famed discipline of the Prussian soldiers held up, but to their peril. Hohenlohe was no Davout, and could not organize his troops at the point of crisis; the Prussian command and control system became completely snarled, and the vaunted Prussian infantry stood in their rigid, unyielding lines as musket and cannon fire poured into their ranks. Shortly after noon, Napoleon ordered a final advance, and the Prussians snapped.
In the meantime, Davout had been fighting for his life at Auerstadt. He had formed his corps into a chain of interlocking squares that decimated the Prussian cavalry but took heavy punishment from the infantry. As he was organizing the attack on the French, though, the septuagenarian Duke of Brunswick took a round and was killed immediately. With the subsequent confusion in the command structure, King Frederick William made his only decision of the day: to split the Prussian army in two and attack either side of Davout’s line.
Davout saw his chance, and ordered a lightning strike on the center of the Prussian army. When that collapsed, he was able to invert his lines and smash into the separated forces on either side of him. Soon, the main Prussian army was also retreating. Davout, outnumbered more than two to one, had triumphed utterly. It was one of the finest tactical performances in history. Napoleon was not ungracious, and recognized Davout’s accomplishment by granting him the title Duke of Auerstadt.
As the Prussian army disintegrated, Napoleon unleashed his cavalry for a devastating pursuit. Most battles of the period left both armies too exhausted for a rapid follow-up attack, but Napoleon had no intention of letting the Prussian army escape. His pursuit was rapid, deadly, and utterly successful. Within days, the last Prussian fortresses had surrendered and the whole army had been either killed or captured.
When the city of Lubeck fell on November 6, 1806, it had been less than a month since Prussia had declared war on France, and in that time the Prussian Army had virtually ceased to exist. Notably, at Lubeck, Marshal Bernadotte – who had failed to come to Davout’s aid – treated some Swedish prisoners of war so well that in a few years he would be formally adopted into the royal family of Sweden. The current monarchs of Sweden are the descendants of French Marshal Jean Bernadotte.
Napoleon entered Berlin on October 27, 1806, taking a moment to stop at Frederick the Great’s tomb; he solemnly reminded his generals that “if he were alive, we would not be here.” But Frederick the Great was dead, King Frederick William was fleeing as fast as he could for the safety of the Russian lines, and Napoleon’s Grande Armee was utterly triumphant. The most powerful and most legendary army in Europe had been taken apart in less than a month. It was one of the quickest, best-led, best-planned, most decisive operations in military history. Europe had been afraid before; they were terrified now.
The Prussian Army would take a long, long time to recover from the psychological shock of Jena and Auerstadt. General Scharnhorst, in particular, would recognize the issues and would work overtime to reform the Prussian Army – with the help of his assistant, a young officer named Karl von Clausewitz. These reforms would attempt to replicate Napoleon’s effectiveness without a Napoleon – in short, to create a genius for war without the military genius at the center. The result would be the General Staff, a meritocratic organization of well-trained officers that would advise and assist the royal commanders. It was the General Staff that would create the finest military organization of the 19th Century, the one that Helmuth von Moltke would take to victory over Austria in 1866 and France in 1870.
Jena-Auerstadt was not just the fire that destroyed the old Prussian Army, and not just one of Napoleon’s greatest triumphs. It was the fire from which the phoenix of the German Army would rise decades later. One often learns more from defeat than from victory.