Louis Davout expected to play a secondary role in the Jena campaign, but when attacked by most of the Prussian army at Auerstädt, the balding, bespectacled corps commander won a crushing victory usually attributed to Napoleon.
On September 15, 1806, the French Grand Armée’s III Corps commander,36-year-old Marshal Louis Davout, arrived in Paris for a short visit with his family and new baby daughter. That evening he wrote a letter to his brother-in-law, General Louis Friant, whom he had left in temporary command of the corps then assigned to occupation duties in Germany. It began: “Everything is war here; a detachment of the [Imperial] Guard left this morning…we are prepared; my last inspection of the troops convinced me of this.”
War, the rampant topic in Paris, loomed because of Prussia’s growing resistance to French expansionism. Napoleon Bonaparte had crowned himself emperor of France in 1804, an elevation that a national plebiscite overwhelmingly ratified. The next year Austria, Sweden, and Russia joined Britain, at war with the French since 1803. Prussia was tempted to throw in its lot with the allies, but with the Battle of Austerlitz in December 1805 and the disastrous defeat of Russia and Austria, united resistance to the French temporarily collapsed.
Opposition to Napoleon was revived with Prussia in the lead in the summer of 1806. Berlin’s chief complaint then was the French emperor’s July formation of the Confederation of the Rhine, a collection of all German states except Prussia, Brunswick, and the lands ruled by the Elector of Hesse. Napoleon, appointing himself the protector of this new union, occupied southern Germany with French forces.
The French had formed a coalition that rivaled the size and war-making potential of its probable opponents. Prussia had begun to mobilize its army in August and delivered menacing ultimatums to Paris: French troops had to withdraw west of the Rhine, open negotiations, and reply to these demands no later than October 8.
Having confidently stated that his III Corps was ready for battle, Davout got down to his real reason for the letter: “There is a very important item, however, which we completely lack; this is that of canteens, pots, etc….each captain will procure from the local inhabitants by private contract those pots of beaten sheet iron which are used in Germany. This article is not very costly and will give the soldier the ability to make his soup. This order must be promptly executed and is for all arms of the 3rd Corps.”
The “pot order” was typical of Davout. He was a zealot when it came to his soldiers’ needs. Shortly after he finished his brief respite from his duties and returned to his corps in Germany, he apprised the emperor’s chief of staff, Général de Division Louis-Alexandre Berthier, about another measure he had made to prepare his troops for action. Since the stunningly successful hundred-day operation in 1805 against Austria, during which some of his infantrymen had marched almost a thousand miles, Davout had increased the issue of footwear for his soldiers. On October 5, he reported to Berthier that “each soldier has two pairs of shoes in his pack and one on his feet; some regiments even have a fourth pair of them in reserve.” Considering the strength of the III Corps at this time, more than twenty thousand men, this logistical procurement feat was little short of a miracle.
Davout was also deeply concerned about his wounded soldiers. While some of his fellow corps commanders did not insist on having the full complement of regimental ambulances and doctors, Davout often went to war with 100 percent of both.
Davout did not coddle his soldiers, nor did he spare his staff from the rigors of battle. A strong disciplinarian, he forbade unauthorized foraging and strictly controlled requisitioning for necessities such as food. Having seen during the last campaign how the public hated stragglers stealing from the civilian populace—and the adverse effect this despicable practice had on troop discipline—he demanded and received permission to shoot all such marauders.
In the midst of combat, he had a habit of thrusting a staff officer into the spots where flying lead and cannonballs were the thickest. Often he would take a contingent of soldiers from a moderately engaged unit, appoint a member of his staff as their commander, and give the lot of them orders to do or die at a threatened sector of the fight. One of his officers described what being in battle with Davout was like with a pronounced understatement:“I can assure you that to serve under him is a truly serious matter.”
Davout was an unlikely marshal in Napoleon’s empire. The French Revolution shaped an uncommon man in the young officer who became Napoleon’s youngest marshal (Mormont, four years younger, was not named a marshal until 1809). Born Louis Nicolas d’Avout in 1770, he was a hearty supporter of the Revolution and revised the spelling of his family name to eliminate the allusion to his nobility. His military career almost ended as a 20- year-old second lieutenant of cavalry when he voiced support for revolutionary change. He was imprisoned, lost his commission, and was discharged by the royalist army.
Two years later he joined a volunteer battalion as a private and was promptly elected captain and then lieutenant colonel by the citizen soldiers. When Prussia and Austria attempted to crush the fledgling French Republic in 1792,Davout distinguished himself in battle. He gained government approval in exposing a royalist plot within the army and in May 1793 was promoted to colonel.
Two months later, the 23-year-old hero became a général de brigade. Offered command of a division, he turned it down, stating he was too young and inexperienced. Soon disenchanted with the Reign of Terror and the busy guillotine in Paris, he resigned from the army,became a supporter of Napoleon Bonaparte, and in 1794 found himself a brigade commander, once again battling the Austrians. In March 1798, Davout first met Napoleon, who recruited him for his expedition to Egypt, where Napoleon directed him to find enough horses to organize and field an adequate cavalry force.
Davout established a solid reputation for administration and organization by achieving the task with speed and efficiency—by seizing officers’ mounts, thereby alienating almost every French officer in the expedition. As a cavalry commander, he was consistently victorious over Arab and Mameluke horsemen in 1798-1799. Returning to France in May 1800, Davout was promoted to général de division in July and began leading cavalry forces in Italy.
In 1801 Napoleon encouraged Davout to marry a beautiful Bonaparte family relative. Creating the French Empire in 1804 and elevating himself to emperor, Napoleon reestablished a class structure. Eighteen men would carry the title “marshal of the empire.”When Davout gained that title, he was only 34 years old. Many older, more experienced generals envied him and considered him undeserving of his rank.
In 1806 Davout certainly did not look the part of a corps commander, and he was largely without any of the social graces. Correct deportment in polite society was a desirable trait for the emperor’s senior officers. Napoleon was rebuilding the French court, complete with finery, elaborate events, and hierarchal ranks for the growing classes of new nobility.
Davout did not seem to fit in polite society. Following a social visit from him, the Duchess of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld summed up the episode by saying:“Marshal Davout’s visit has been got over. It was a weary business trying to enliven him, for it is impossible to be more stolid and uncommunicative than was this thoroughly unpleasant man.”
To some, his disagreeable demeanor was exceeded by his appearance. The III Corps commander looked more like a monk or bookseller than a dashing battlefield leader. Despite his youth, the crown of his head was completely bald. He sometimes looked a bit plump and had rather girlish lips.
The most striking facet of his appearance is that in an age when poor eyesight was deemed a weakness he wore glasses— a rarity in that era and unheard-of for a senior commander in Napoleon’s army. In battle he used a special frame for his glasses, one that could be strapped to his head. During the early part of his military career, he garnered an unwelcome reputation for slovenly dress, an attribute well known to irritate the emperor. Nevertheless, he had the emperor’s trust.
As the deadline passed for Paris to respond to Berlin’s demands, the French and Prussian armies began moving toward each other. The Prussians, especially the young officers, were optimistic and eager to fight. When it became clear hostilities were at hand, a number of them marched to the French Embassy in Berlin, drew their swords, and sharpened them on the building’s stone steps.
While Prussian youth welcomed war with enthusiasm, their king, Friedrich Wilhelm III, had outpaced them. Ten months before, the king joined Tsar Alexander of Russia on a bizarre midnight visit to the tomb of Frederick the Great. There, they made a clandestine candlelight vow to resist Napoleon’s ambitions, promising to halt further French encroachment in Europe, if necessary with armed force.
Napoleon did not have complete intelligence about Friedrich Wilhelm’s intentions but expected him to move south and invite battle. The emperor acted on the assumption that the Prussians and their unenthusiastic Saxon allies would concentrate in Thuringia, perhaps around Gera, to block the road to Leipzig and Berlin.
He was right. The first contact between the two armies came on October 9, when Marshal Jean Baptiste Bernadotte’s I Corps cavalry screen stumbled into a seven-thousand-man Prussian covering force 26 miles southeast of Jena.A short but sharp engagement broke out. Having discovered the approximate size of the French force as well as its direction of march, the Prussians broke contact and withdrew to make their report. In a grim indication of what was coming, the brief encounter was costly; the Prussians suffered about four hundred casualties.
An even more significant contact occurred the next morning 18 miles southeast of Gera at Saalfeld. There, the eighty-three-hundred-man Prussian advance guard under Prince Ludwig Ferdinand spotted a fifty-five-hundred-man contingent of the French V Corps under Marshal Jean Lannes. Rather than wait for reinforcements as he had been directed, the young, hard-drinking, and rash prince led a foolish attack on a force that could be quickly joined by sixteen thousand soldiers, the remainder of the French corps.
A four-hour fight broke out. Napoleon, mistakenly thinking Lannes might be engaging the entire Prussian army, galloped up to Davout and ordered him to rush the III Corps ten miles northwest toward the sound of guns. Before Davout reached the battle, the guns had fallen silent. Lannes had soundly thrashed the Prussians in the early afternoon.
Prussian casualties numbered about three thousand, and they had given up 27 pieces of artillery. French losses amounted to only about two hundred. A French hussar sergeant killed the hotheaded Prince Ferdinand with a saber. Discovering the reckless prince had been leading a relatively small force, the French continued in search of the Prussian main body. The emperor turned Davout’s III Corps around, ordering it ten miles east to Auma.
Napoleon, unaware the bulk of the Prussian army was about twenty miles to the west, near Jena, reached Gera by noon the next day, and found only light enemy detachments. On the 12th Napoleon, still unable to locate the Prussian main body, reasoned his enemy was withdrawing northward to protect Berlin.
He realized he might well have an opportunity to trap his prey with a lightning attack toward Jena coupled with a wide envelopment northward led by Davout’s III Corps. However, during the day, Napoleon’s cavalry rendezvoused with a French spy who reported Prussian forces were still in the Weimar-Jena region.
Finally understanding where the Prussians were, Napoleon began concentrating four of his six infantry corps, heading toward Jena.He estimated the battle would take place on October 16. Davout’s corps and Marshal Jean Baptiste Bernadotte’s I Corps would perform the secondary role, keeping to the north in a position to cut off the Prussian army if it recoiled and retreated. Once again, the emperor was one step behind his quarry’s intentions. On October 13, the vacillating Prussian leaders settled on the course that Napoleon had previously anticipated. They withdrew northward— toward Leipzig and Berlin—and unknowingly headed toward Davout and Bernadotte. The French secondary effort was destined to face the bulk of the Prussians while the larger portion of Napoleon’s corps, rapidly concentrating to fight the entire Prussian force, would in fact only encounter the rear guard of a withdrawing army.
The Prussian main body was on its way north when on the 13th the advance elements of Lannes’ V Corps spotted the rear guard of the enemy column as a dense morning fog lifted. The Prussians, under Duke Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand of Brunswick, heard firing to their rear as they moved northward. Brunswick thought the skirmish was a minor affair and continued his march.
The V Corps had engaged Prussian forces a couple of miles north of Jena. For Napoleon, still thinking the Prussians were massing to his front, this fight was breaking out three days too early—when he had only one-fourth of the troops he imagined he would need to conduct the battle. He now believed the lonely 21,500-man French V Corps was at the mercy of one hundred thousand enemy troops.
Elsewhere, at 4:30 p.m. Davout’s unsuspecting advance guard, still not realizing the Prussian main body was approaching, had a brief, inconsequential brush with the Prussian cavalry screen just east of Auerstädt, eleven miles north of Jena. During that afternoon and night, Napoleon, picturing a precarious situation for his V Corps, frantically sent out a blizzard of orders and instructions to hasten the concentration of the main attack forces at Jena.
Napoleon still wanted Davout and Bernadotte to block the Prussian army he hoped to defeat as it was fleeing the battlefield or to crush the Prussian left flank if his disunited adversaries—the loosely combined forces of Prince Friedrich Ludwig von HohenloheIngelfingen, General Ernst Friedrich von Rüchel, and the Duke of Brunswick—faced to the southeast, concentrated and stood their ground. The emperor dispatched his order to the III Corps, instructions he wanted Davout to pass on to Bernadotte, at 10 on the night of October 13. The courier, finding his way in the darkness, managed to cover the 17 miles to Naumburg and reach Davout’s headquarters five hours later, at 3 a.m. on the 14th.
Napoleon’s instructions stated that the main battle would probably be fought early on the 14th just west of Jena. The emperor ordered the III Corps to Apolda to take the enemy in the rear or attack the Prussian left flank. Bernadotte’s I Corps was to march with Davout’s III Corps,or if the I Corps was moving as previously instructed to Dornburg,the two corps commanders would outflank or trap the hapless Prussians.
Davout took a copy of the emperor’s instructions to Bernadotte’s headquarters, also in Naumburg. He found the I Corps commander, gave him Napoleon’s orders, returned to his own corps, and led it on the road to Apolda.
The morning of the 14th proved to be a copy of the day before—a dense, blinding fog masked visibility for French and Prussians alike. The battle at Jena had begun at 6:30 a.m. with Lannes’V Corps, now being reinforced by Marshal Pierre Augereau’s VII Corps, against Hohenlohe’s Prussians. At the same time a little over a dozen miles north, Davout’s III Corps, now with twenty-six thousand men, groped its way in the fog in a long column moving to the southwest. The men bumped into Brunswick’s advance guard as he was leading 63,500 Prussian soldiers northward.
The sudden contact resulted in the Prussians becoming tangled up and concentrated as the head of the column was stopped but the remainder kept moving forward.The fog lifted at 8 a.m. to reveal the brilliant fall colors of the forested hills and farm villages of Thuringia—a scene that smoke from the belching guns quickly obscured.
At both of the widely separated battlefields, Jena and Auerstädt, the Prussians were moving into their famous rigid linear formations and advancing to conduct stand-up, toe-to-toe, eighteenth-century-style battle. The French went into their more modern battle formation with their lines of infantry being preceded by skirmishers, light infantrymen moving independently and firing from behind cover. The bloody event that would much later be known as the Battle of Jena-Auerstädt began with the roar of artillery, screaming officers, cursing sergeants, and falling soldiers.
At Jena the battle was initially shaping up according to Napoleon’s plan, the two corps of Lannes and Augereau making good progress—until the lead elements of Marshal Michel Ney’s VI Corps arrived. The impetuous, combative Ney decided not to await Napoleon’s orders. He rushed the few troops he had around him into a headlong plunge toward a contingent of Prussians with twice his own numbers. While initially successful, his impatient move began to cost him dearly. Not only were his soldiers suffering heavy casualties, but his imprudent attack also attracted many of the available forty-five Prussian cavalry squadrons on the field.
Soon Ney’s men were all but cut off and had to go into an all-around defense, the square formation, desperately trying to fend off a horde of saber-wielding enemy horsemen. Their plight forced Napoleon to abandon his original intentions, and he began redirecting units to extricate his wayward VI Corps commander.
At Auerstädt the single French corps was in a far more serious situation than its sister units were at Jena, where another corps was rapidly reinforcing Napoleon’s three corps. At Auerstädt, by 8:30 a.m., only thirty minutes after the battle had begun, Davout’s heavily outnumbered and leading 3rd Division began giving ground and then fighting for its life against overwhelming numbers of Prussians. The division was immediately up against nine infantry battalions, twenty-four guns, and twelve squadrons of cavalry.
Here, however, the Prussians made an impetuous move. Their cavalry prematurely attacked the French division— without coordinating the assault with their infantry and artillery. The well-disciplined and experienced French division went into a square and proceeded to fight off repeated charges.
In the interim Davout rushed up his 2nd Division and tied it in with the right flank of the battered 3rd Division. At 9 a.m. Davout sent his cavalry into the fight, again on his right flank to avoid being enveloped by the oncoming Prussians. He also deployed his horsemen to comply with Napoleon’s instructions to block the Prussians from moving north.
By this time Brunswick had four divisions on line and began a determined assault. At this critical juncture Davout finally began receiving the initial units of his trailing 1st Division. Seeing the oncoming Prussian assault could now outflank his left, he led the panting newcomers there just in time to contest the enemy attack.
As the Prussians closed with the French, a musket ball hit their commander, who was well to the front directing the assault of a regiment of grenadiers, blinding and mortally wounding Brunswick. One of Prussia’s division commanders, General Friedrich-Wilhelm-Karl Graf von Schmettau, was also mortally wounded.
Prussian command at Auerstadt now fell to the commander in chief, King Friedrich Wilhelm III, who was on the battlefield. The king threw a collection of infantry and cavalry units against Davout’s hastily forming left flank. With his 1st Division frantically fighting off the Prussians, the III Corps commander dispatched his aide, a Captain Trobriand, to Bernadotte at Dornburg, seven miles to the southeast, with a desperate plea for assistance in stemming the attacking Prussians.
Davout seemed to be everywhere on the battlefield, placing units as they came on line, bolstering threatened sectors, personally supervising or using his staff as impromptu battle leaders. He roamed the front, spotting gaps and French units that were giving way. Repeatedly he galloped to one of his artillery batteries and hustled it forward to fill a breech —in essence, using his gunners as defending infantry. He put his senior aide in command of a cavalry contingent to conduct a reconnaissance and gave his chief of engineers a regiment of infantry to lead.
At 11 a.m. far to the south at Jena, Hohenlohe, the Prussian commander, saw a steady stream of new French units arriving on the battlefield. Realizing he was fighting the bulk of the French army, Hohenlohe sent for help from Rüchel’s unengaged forces five miles to the west.
Hohenlohe decided to merely hold Napoleon’s advancing forces as best he could until Rüchel arrived. This played into the emperor’s hand. During the time it took for Rüchel’s Prussians to march east, Napoleon had amassed ninety thousand men against Hohenlohe’s thirty-eight thousand.
In the interim Prussian discipline and outmoded tactics tragically bowed to the new French method of war. For two hours, twenty thousand of Hohenlohe’s soldiers stood in perfectly dressed lines in an open field while their ranks were being steadily depleted by swarms of French skirmishers firing from behind trees and fences. By the time Rüchel’s thirteen thousand troops arrived, the Prussians were incapable of offering substantial resistance.
While Hohenlohe was modestly reinforced against Napoleon, Davout would not be reinforced at all at Auerstädt. When his aide, Trobriand, reached Dornburg he was stunned by how Marshal Bernadotte responded to Davout’s urgent request for help.
With two major battles going on to the south and the north, the captain found the I Corps wholly idle. And when Trobriand relayed Davout’s request, Bernadotte said: “Return to your marshal and tell him that I am here and that he need not fear. Go!” It was as if the I Corps commander had said he could not be bothered with trivia. If Davout needed help, he could move the battle to Dornburg. He made no effort to join Davout.
The battle at Auerstädt began turning at noon. After defeating one more concerted Prussian attack, Davout began taking the offensive. He ordered his 1st Division to assault the Prussian right and his 2nd Division to attack the Prussian left. He briefly held back the 3rd Division at the center, so the French counterattack was shaped like a steadily advancing crescent. Davout had noticed high ground on both flanks of the deployed Prussian army, and he intended to possess it.
Under a fusillade of French artillery fire and with their flanks being threatened, the Prussians began giving ground. Davout had pushed an advancing double envelopment in motion. The Prussian center, on lower ground than the two French spearheads, had to retreat or suffer annihilation in a murderous crossfire. By dusk, the steadily advancing III Corps troops had pushed their opponents back some four miles through Eckartsberg, where the Prussians began a full-scale disorderly retreat into the darkness.
Ever mindful of the emperor’s strict in structions to immediately report an action, Davout wrote:
Sire, I have the honor of rendering account to Your Majesty…I found the enemy, who was on the march….The battle began immediately. It was very bloody and hard fought. The King of Prussia, the Duke of Brunswick and Marshal Mollendorf and more than 60000 men disputed the victory with the 3rd Corps….Your Majesty lost many brave men….Several regiments have lost the greater part of their officers. The number of the wounded is very considerable….Cartridges are lacking. The Corps was very weakened; I took [defensive] position about seven o’clock in the evening. Tonight the cartridges will be replaced; the arms will be put into condition and tomorrow we will be ready to execute the orders of Your Majesty.
After midnight and after ascertaining the full extent of his losses, Davout reported to Napoleon’s chief of staff, Berthier:“I will ask of Your Highness some adjutants general, some engineer officers, some sappers, some cannoneers, especially some staff officers; nearly all those I had have been wounded or killed.” Serving as a staff officer under Davout was indeed a serious matter.
Napoleon was initially skeptical of Davout’s report, but as he learned more he came to realize the extraordinary events that had taken place twelve miles to the north. In the early hours of October 15, the emperor received the report, saw the estimate of sixty thousand Prussian troops the III Corps had engaged and read about the presence of the Prussian king.
Referring to Davout’s impaired vision, he turned to the III Corps courier and told him,“Your marshal is seeing double.”However, as the day wore on, he learned the truth about what had happened from prisoners, and he also learned of Bernadotte’s disgraceful refusal to come to Davout’s assistance.
Neither Napoleon nor most of his marshals liked Bernadotte. Both Ney and Bernadotte had worked their way up from the ranks in the pre-Revolution royal army. Both achieved the rank of sergeant major, obtained officers’ commissions after 1789, and earned superb reputations as battlefield commanders. Through marriage, Bernadotte became Napoleon’s brother-in-law.
When Bonaparte seized control of the French government, Bernadotte’s name was vaguely mentioned as one of those plotting against him. Napoleon threatened to have him shot, but changed his mind when Bernadotte’s teary-eyed wife, the beautiful Désirée,who as a girl had roused Bonaparte’s passions, pleaded for mercy. That plea was evidently still effective on October 15, 1806.
Napoleon, claiming Bernadotte had ignored his orders, signed an order for the marshal’s court-martial. However, once again he had second thoughts. Realizing that such an action would have ensured a firing squad for his I Corps commander, the emperor tore up the order.
The French had a major victory, and Napoleon did not hesitate to exploit it—militarily and psychologically. At Jena and Auerstädt, Prussian loses included twenty-two thousand killed and wounded, two hundred guns, and twenty generals killed, wounded, or captured. French losses amounted to half that, eleven thousand (sixty percent from Davout’s III Corps). A subsequent three-week pursuit resulted in the capture of one hundred forty thousand Prussians and Saxons and eight hundred field guns—nothing less than the Prussian army’s utter destruction.
Within the army, Napoleon heaped praise on the III Corps, but publications for domestic and foreign civilian consumption barely mentioned Davout and his men. The first six-page public account of the triumph the emperor released contained only one paragraph about Davout’s fight at Auerstädt, referring to the III Corps as being “at our right,” implying the corps was at the flank of the Grande Armée. Tellingly, it was up to the Prussians to get it right. They characterized the day’s actions as “The Battle of Jena-Auerstädt.”
Nevertheless, while Napoleon effectively exploited the fruits of the victory, he failed to act on the ugly fact that became obvious on October 14: The Grande Armée had one-third of its infantrymen under two unreliable corps commanders. Marshal Ney, a courageous battle leader, could not restrain himself long enough to either await Napoleon’s order before he attacked or pause long enough to advance with a force that was adequate to overcome the opponent.
Many Frenchmen would owe their lives to Ney’s heroic leadership during a daring rear-guard action coming out of Russia in November 1812. Ney would have made a superb division commander, but he could not be entrusted with a corps, a unit that often operated some distance beyond Napoleon’s sight and control.
Bernadotte’s character flaw was of a different sort. Napoleon and his chief of staff were outraged that Bernadotte disregarded the emperor’s intent that the I Corps work with Davout’s III Corps. That it had been the youngest marshal who handed Bernadotte Napoleon’s orders apparently meant that he did not have to obey them. Within a month, the imperious Bernadotte attempted to justify his refusal to assist Davout by telling a fellow officer, “I might have felt piqued at receiving something like orders from Davout, but I did my duty.”
Later it became evident Napoleon would have been far better off if he had followed his first instinct and put the I Corps commander before a firing squad. One of the minor effects of the Battle of Jena-Auerstädt handed Bernadotte a throne.
During the pursuit of the disorganized and defeated Prussian army, the I Corps came upon a Swedish division that had been belatedly sent to bolster Berlin’s chances against Napoleon. Becoming prisoners, the captives found the French commander charming and generous. Three years later, a coup d’etat and a sudden death left Sweden without an heir to its aging king. For diplomatic and security purposes, a group of Swedish leaders promoted the idea of making a French marshal crown prince.
Napoleon was indifferent. Bernadotte was ecstatic. The Swedes were agreeable. In August 1810, the Swedish Parliament unanimously consented. Within two years, the new crown prince was plotting with Russia and Great Britain and later Prussia against Napoleon. In 1813 Bernadotte was briefing the allies on French weaknesses and recommended a military strategy that the armies subsequently followed in the Leipzig campaign that fall.
During the Battle of Leipzig, the Grande Armée, still weak from the disaster in Russia the year before, was forced out of Germany. The battle marked the allied strategic turning point in their many campaigns against Napoleon and led to the French emperor’s first forcible exile.
While Bernadotte laid the allied strategic groundwork for ending Napoleon’s military career, Marshal Michel Ney greatly contributed to the tactical failure of Bonaparte’s last battle, at Waterloo in June 1815. The emperor chose the redheaded warrior to command the left wing of his 105,000- man Army of the North, advancing against about 157,000 oncoming allied troops under the battle-savvy Arthur Wellesley, Duke of Wellington, and the uncontrollable Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher, who had led cavalry charges at Auerstädt.
Napoleon divided his attention between the left and right wing, a distance of about four miles. As the French marshal had done at Jena almost nine years before, he launched the major assault about an hour too early—without fully exploiting his devastating artillery support. As at Jena, Napoleon once again decided he had to reinforce Ney’s move. Ney began throwing in unsupported infantry and cavalry piecemeal, personally leading many of those attacks. At last he sent the Imperial Guard into the bloody maelstrom.
As with the previous assaults, Wellington’s depleted but stubborn ranks repulsed the Guard. When the French soldiers saw the Guard fail, it broke their spirits and they began an unorganized, then panicky retreat.
In the larger sense,neither Napoleon’s disaster at Leipzig nor that at Waterloo turned on Bernadotte’s or Ney’s behavior. Napoleon caused both defeats. He had been content to bask in the glory of Jena and failed to act on the obvious flaws that battle had revealed: Bernadotte could not be trusted, and Ney was unsuited for corps command.
Bonaparte also failed to take advantage of what was proven at Auerstädt in 1806: Louis Davout’s superb grasp of tactics and sterling combat leadership. Napoleon did not have him at Leipzig or Waterloo. During the Leipzig campaign, Napoleon ordered Davout to perform garrison duties at Hamburg, more than two hundred miles from the battlefield.
When Bonaparte returned from Elba in February 1815, he appointed Davout war minister. Instead of battling Wellington and Blücher in Belgium on June 18, 1815, Bonaparte’s best battlefield commander was sitting behind a desk in Paris. Notwithstanding the heroic performance of the allies at Waterloo, Bonaparte’s great tragedy was mostly self-inflicted.
MHQ editor Rod Paschall is the author of several works of military history, including The Defeat of Imperial Germany and Witness to War: Korea.
Originally published in the Summer 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.