On this Day in History – 14/10/1806
French troops under Napoleon smashed the outdated Prussian army led by Charles William Ferdinand at the Battle of Jena.
The Battle of Jena, also called Battle of Jena-Auerstädt, (Oct. 14, 1806), military engagement of the Napoleonic Wars, fought between 122,000 French troops and 114,000 Prussians and Saxons, at Jena and Auerstädt, in Saxony (modern Germany). In the battle, Napoleon smashed the outdated Prussian army inherited from Frederick II the Great, which resulted in the reduction of Prussia to half its former size at the Treaty of Tilsit in July 1807.
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The battles began when elements of Napoleon’s main force encountered Hohenlohe’s troops near Jena. Initially only 48,000 strong, the Emperor took advantage of his carefully planned and flexible dispositions to rapidly build up a superior force of 96,000 men. The Prussians were slow to grasp the situation, and slower still to react. Before Ruchel’s 15,000 men could arrive from Weimar, Hohenlohe’s force of 38,000 was routed, with 10,000 killed or wounded and 15,000 captured. Nevertheless, it was a fierce battle, with 5,000 French losses, and Napoleon mistakenly believed that he had faced the main body of the Prussian army.
Further north at Auerstedt, both Davout and Bernadotte received orders to come to Napoleon’s aid. Davout attempted to comply via Eckartsberga, Bernadotte via Dornburg. Davout’s route south, however, was blocked by the Prussian main force of 60,500 men, including the Prussian King, the Duke of Brunswick and Field Marshals von Möllendorf and von Kalckreuth. A savage battle ensued. Although outnumbered two to one, Davout’s superbly trained and disciplined III Corps endured repeated attacks before it eventually took the offensive and put the Prussians to flight. Though within earshot of both battles, Marshal Bernadotte controversially took no steps to come to Davout’s aid, refusing to take the initiative and instead adhering to the last written set of Napoleon’s orders.
Napoleon initially did not believe that Davout’s single Corps had defeated the Prussian main body unaided and responded to the first report by saying “Your Marshal must be seeing double!”, a reference to Davout’s poor eyesight. As matters became clearer, however, the Emperor was unstinting in his praise. Davout was made Duke of Auerstedt. Lannes, the hero of Jena, was not so honored.
Bernadotte’s lack of action was controversial within a week of the twin battles. Bernadotte had last received positive written orders on the day before the battle in which his I Corps, along with Davout’s III Corps, were to lay astride the Prussians’ projected line of retreat. He was the only Marshal not to receive updated, written orders on the night of 13 October. In the early hours of October 14th, Davout received a courier from Berthier in which he wrote: “If the Prince of Ponte Corvo [Bernadotte] is with you, you may both march together, but the Emperor hopes that he will be in the position which had been indicated at Dornburg.” Davout thence relayed this order to Bernadotte when the next met at 0400 the same morning. Bernadotte later cited the poorly written, equivocal nature of the verbal order, as discretionary and complied with Napoleon’s wish to be at Dornburg instead of accompanying Davout. Moreover, when told of Davout’s difficulties, Bernadotte did not believe that the Prussian main force was before III Corps as Napoleon had claimed the main body was at Jena. As a consequence, he failed to aid Davout and instead fulfilled the Emperor’s orders to position I Corps in the Prussian rear on the Heights of Apolda, which, incidentally, did have the effect intended as the Prussians at Jena withdrew once they saw French troops occupy their line of retreat.
Davout and Bernadotte later became bitter enemies as the result of Bernadotte’s perceived indifference at the fate of a fellow Marshal. For his part, Napoleon later stated on St. Helena that Bernadotte’s behavior (though he was complying with Napoleon’s orders) was disgraceful and that but for his attachment to Bernadotte’s wife, Napoleon’s own former fiancée, Desiree Clary, he would have had Bernadotte shot. However, contemporary evidence indicates that far from scenes of recriminations and insults alleged by Davout and his aides-de-Camp against Bernadotte the night of the battles, Napoleon was unaware anything was amiss, insofar as I Corps had played the part assigned to it by the Emperor, until days later. Napoleon later sent a severely worded reprimand to Bernadotte but took no further action.
On the Prussian side, Brunswick was mortally wounded at Auerstedt, and over the next few days, the remaining forces were unable to mount any serious resistance to Murat’s ruthless cavalry pursuit. In the Capitulation of Erfurt on 16 October, a large body of Prussian troops became prisoners with hardly a shot being fired. Bernadotte crushed Eugene Frederick Henry, Duke of Württemberg’s Prussian Reserve Army on the 17th in the Battle of Halle, partially redeeming himself in Napoleon’s eyes. In recognition of his glorious victory at Auerstadt, Napoleon gave Davout the honor of entering Berlin first. Davout led his exhausted III Corps into Berlin in triumph on 25 October. Hohenlohe’s force surrendered on 28 October after the Battle of Prenzlau, followed soon after by the Capitulation of Pasewalk. The French ran down and captured several small Prussian columns at Boldekow on 30 October, Anklam on 1 November, Wolgast on 3 November, and Wismar on 5 November.
21,000 Prussian field troops remained at large west of the Oder as November began under the command of Gebhard Blücher. French advances prevented his corps from crossing the Oder, or moving toward Stettin to seek waterborne transport to East Prussia. Bernadotte began a relentless pursuit of Blücher, with the two forces engaging in several holding actions, and was later joined by Murat and Soult in “The Pursuit of the Three Marshals.” Blücher then moved west to cross into neutral Denmark but the Danes placed their army on the border with the intent of attacking any force that tried to cross it. The Prussians then violated the neutrality of the Hanseatic City of Lübeck and fortified it with the intent of joining forces with an allied Swedish contingent there on its way home, and commandeering ships in the hopes of reaching a safe harbor. However, Blücher and Winning’s corps was surrounded and destroyed in what became the Battle of Lübeck on 6 and 7 November after Bernadotte’s I Corps, still smarting from the Emperor’s censure, stormed the fortified city gates, poured into the streets and squares breaking hasty attempts at resistance and captured Blücher’s command post (and his Chief of Staff Gerhard von Scharnhorst) as Soult’s troops blocked all escape routes. The Prussians lost 3000 killed and wounded. On the morning of 7 November, with all hope of escape extinguished, Blücher surrendered personally to Bernadotte and went into captivity with 9,000 other Prussian prisoners of war. The Siege of Magdeburg ended on 11 November with Ney’s capture of the fortress. Isolated Prussian resistance remained, but Napoleon’s primary foe was now Russia, and the Battle of Eylau and the Battle of Friedland awaited.