In Part Three, we will minutely examine, with many photos of hundreds of toy soldiers and accompanying captions, the brilliant performance of General Morand’s Division of Napoleon’s French Grande Armée at the Battle of Auerstädt.
The twin battles fought simultaneously a few miles apart near the villages of Jena and Auerstädt respectively in south-central Germany on 14 October 1806 saw the end of one era and the beginning of another in military history. On one side was Napoleon of France. On the other was the German Kingdom of Prussia. The consensus of all the world that mattered was that the German Prussian Army, the child of military genius Frederick the Great in the middle of the previous century, was unassailably the best on earth. Decades before, Frederick had used his lethal instrument to inflict a devastating and humiliating defeat on France. No one except the French expected the result to be any different on 14 July 1806. But in a matter of a few hours on that day, the French comprehensively dismembered the Prussian Army and turned each of its parts into bloodied and panicked mobs fleeing into the night.
At Jena, Napoleon himself was in command. He had almost all of his Grande Armée directly under his view: I, IV, V, VI, and VII Corps, plus the Reserve Cavalry Corps and his own Imperial Guard. But the III Corps was relatively isolated on an independent mission a few miles away in the vicinity of Auerstädt.
The III Corps was commanded by Marshal Louis Nicolas Davout, arguably the best of Napoleon’s twenty-six Marshals. The III Corps was subdivided into three divisions: the 1st commanded by General Charles Antoine Morand, the 2nd commanded by General Louis Friant, and the 3rd commanded by General Etienne Gudin. It is Morand’s 1st Division that we will consider in depth here. At Auerstädt, Morand and his not quite ten-thousand soldiers put on a tour de force of battlefield choreography that remains dazzling to the militarily astute to this day. They smashed opposing forces approximately twice the size of their own.
Morand’s Division was subdivided into three brigades: a Vanguard Brigade commanded by General D’Honniers and two standard brigades commanded by Generals Debilly and Brouard respectively. Debilly’s Brigade contained the 51st and 61st Infantry Regiments of the Line while Brouard’s Brigade had the 17th and 30th of the Line. The 51st Regiment had three battalions, the 61st likewise had three battalions, and the 17th and 30th had two battalions each. So, Morand had ten standard infantry (called “line”) battalions in his division.
But there was something special about the Vanguard Brigade. This brigade had only one regiment but it was a new and revolutionary sort of regiment which embodied the spirit of the new French way of war: The 13th Light Infantry Regiment. In Part One of this presentation, we discussed the elite voltigeur skirmisher peloton that was intrinsic (“organic” in military terms) to every French standard “line” infantry battalion. All ten of Morand’s standard line infantry battalions had their own organic voltigeur peloton. What made the 13th Light Infantry Regiment special was that it was composed of two entire battalions of skirmisher “light” infantry of the voltigeur mode and nothing but skirmisher light infantry. French Napoleonic military nomenclature will now become dauntingly complex. In the 13th Light Infantry Regiment, there were three classifications of skirmisher light infantry: “chasseurs on foot,” “carabiniers,” and voltigeurs whom we have already met. (These light infantry carabiniers are not to be confused with the heavy cavalry carabiniers mentioned in Part One.) In each of the 13th Light’s two battalions, there were seven pelotons of chasseurs on foot, one peloton of carabiniers, and one peloton of voltigeurs. The peloton of carabiniers in a light infantry battalion was equivalent to the peloton of grenadiers in a line infantry battalion. The pelotons of chasseurs on foot in a light infantry battalion were equivalent to the pelotons of fusiliers in a line infantry battalion. And the peloton of voltigeurs in a light infantry battalion was, obviously, equivalent to the peloton of voltigeurs in a line infantry battalion. So, in effect, the carabiniers were heavy lightweights, the chasseurs on foot were medium lightweights, and the voltigeurs were light lightweights. But the defining aggressive spirit and signature skirmishing skills of all troops in the 13th Light were the same regardless of whether they called themselves chasseurs on foot, carabiniers, or voltigeurs. In the battle of Auerstädt, the voltigeur pelotons in each of Morand’s ten standard line infantry battalions and the two specialty battalions of the 13th Light Infantry Regiment would achieve things out of proportion to their numbers.
In the mid-18th Century, Frederick the Great’s genius built German Prussia’s army up into the dreaded and invincible military wonder of the age. But with Frederick long dead in 1806, genius had been replaced by pedantry and slavish adherence to methodologies which had once been cutting edge but were now ossified. At both Jena and Auerstädt, the sheer freshness and vigor of French methods—particularly the combination of massed artillery and the free-spirited, self-directed boldness of French light infantry troops—were new factors with which the dully robotic German Prussian infantry simply could not cope. The German Prussian troops at Jena and Auerstädt were essentially lobotomized walking muskets as Frederick had demanded a generation before. At both battles, they fired off one rigidly controlled massed musket volley after another after another all through the day. Decades before, such volleys had shattered the ranks of Frederick’s many enemies. But at Jena and Auerstädt, much of each Prussian volley hit air. The French skirmisher light infantry—and the ordinary French troops as well—were a new kind of soldier with brains who disdained standing still to be shot at. From the first shot at both Jena and Auerstädt, the French were simply quicker off the snap at every key moment of both battles.
Auerstädt was a classic “meeting engagement.” Which is to say, it was a battle in which two armies that just happen to be marching toward each other on the same road, each only vaguely aware of where the other is, bump into each other nose to nose, more or less by accident. The battle turns into a race as the opposing armies rush their trailing elements forward, up the route on which they were marching, toward the point of collision. The winner will be whoever recovers from his surprise first and most effectively. Gudin’s Division, which was Davout’s lead division on that day, shared bloody noses with the leading Prussian element. Friant’s Division was the next in the order of march and Davout fed him into the fight to the right of Gudin. Morand was last and Davout sent him in on Gudin’s left. The timeliness of Morand’s arrival was something out of a cheap Hollywood western or action-adventure flick. Large and powerful Prussian forces that had just come onto the battlefield were at the very instant of turning the corner on the left extremity of Gudin’s line. They were at the very instant of crushing Gudin’s left extremity and rolling up Gudin’s and then Friant’s line from left to right with catastrophic results for the French. Gudin’s extreme left flank regiment, the 12th Infantry Regiment of the Line, was minutes away from annihilation when Morand’s leading elements appeared just to the left of the 12th, thereby stalling the Prussian flanking move. It was a “nick of time” occurrence of such extremity that the more intelligent and sensitive of Hollywood execs would never try to sell a movie about it.
Now, let’s get to the pictures and captions. But before we get to rescuing the 12th of the Line, I need to show you some pictures that will establish how I will employ my toy soldiers to represent various things.
NOTE: Unlike Part Two, I will not employ cotton simulated gun smoke in the photos here in Part Three because I do not want to obscure the movements and formations of the units of troops.
Part 3-1. For purposes of Part Three of this presentation, a group of twenty toy soldiers will represent a French infantry battalion of 1,026 soldiers at full strength. The battalion in the foreground is in line formation. The battalion in the background is in column of battalion by division formation. Both battalions have their organic voltigeur pelotons deployed forward in skirmish order. See Part One of this presentation for the definitions of “line formation,” “column of battalion by division formation,” and “voltigeur.”
Part 3-2. As we established in Part One of this presentation, the hollow square formation is the optimal means for a battalion of infantry to defend itself from attack by enemy horse cavalry.
When voltigeurs are at their favorite game, coursing back and forth across the battlefield in small buddy groups, they are painfully vulnerable to any large enemy horse cavalry unit which may choose that moment to swoop down on them at full gallop and snatch them up. When enemy cavalry seems more interested in them than they would like, smart voltigeurs hasten to take shelter inside the protective hollow square of their parent battalion.
Part 3-4. It’s time to pick up the action near Auerstädt late in the morning of 14 October 1806. Morand’s Division is arriving on the battlefield, just in the ta-da nick of time, to come into position on the left of Gudin’s Division which has been engaged in heavy combat against the Prussians for a few hours now. In the lead, both skirmisher battalions of Morand’s specialized 13th Light Infantry Regiment have already initiated a shootout with the enemy. To the left of the 13th, a unit of French “chasseur on horseback” style light cavalry is likewise fighting in fluid skirmisher style against the enemy. Coming up behind the 13th Light, Morand’s ten battalions of line infantry are marching along both sides of the road one behind the other. All ten battalions are in column of battalion by (two-peloton-wide) divisions with their organic voltigeur pelotons already in skirmish order immediately ahead of each battalion. Morand’s divisional artillery marches forward parallel to the line infantry battalions. Let’s zoom in on various key parts of this scene to examine them in detail.
Part 3-6. The robotic-figuratively-lobotomized-walking-musket Prussian infantry soldiers are utterly nonplussed by the wildly loose, fluid, and aggressive fighting style of the independently quick-thinking French light infantry of the 13th Light, as well as by the French chasseurs who are fighting in the same style from astride their horses. The light cavalry chasseurs are not drawing their sabers and charging all the way into the Prussian infantry in heroic, Hollywood movie-genic, but suicidal fashion. To the contrary, they are moving loosely at stand-off distance from the Prussians, harassing, stinging, and demoralizing the Prussians with carbine and pistol fire. The chasseurs on horseback are careful to keep themselves spread out so that massed musket volleys from the Prussians will have minimal effect. When the sun is setting on this great French victory a few hours from now, it will be French heavy cavalry who will draw sabers and execute headlong densely-massed charges at panicked mobs of Prussian infantry in order to cut them down and trample them into the dirt beneath the horses’ hooves. The purpose of heavy cavalry in the final stage of a battle is to convert a mere victory into a massacre.
Part 3-7. Meanwhile, Morand’s leading line infantry battalion continues straight ahead while the following battalions peel left from the road to line up to the left of the leading battalion. The French cannon crewmen are looking for the right place and the right moment to unlimber their big guns and open fire.
Part 3-9. The next phase of the battle commences. All ten of Morand’s line infantry battalions are now on line abreast of each other, though they are still in column of battalion by division with their organic voltigeur pelotons pushed out front in skirmish order. The French artillery has positioned itself in two groups interspersed with the infantry. Note that in Part Two, two toy cannons represented two real cannons, while here in Part Three, two toy cannons represent a full company or more of real cannons.
Part 3-10. On Morand’s extreme left flank, which is now the extreme left flank of all III Corps, the 13th Light Infantry Regiment swiftly assumes the role of protective covering force for the extreme left. As ordered, the chasseur on horseback light cavalry has faded back to a position in deep reserve.
Part 3-13. The French push forward across the entire breadth of the division front. The French now come into a die-straight line formation that Frederick the Great would have been proud of. The French are now beating the Prussians at the Prussians’ own game: a long, sustained exchange of mass musket volleys. Well-controlled French firepower breaks up the Prussians’ ranks and sends them into recoil.
Part 3-14. This close-up shows how broad and shallow the French battalions are when they deploy themselves into traditional Frederick-style line formation for traditional Frederick-style volley exchanges. Notice how the voltigeurs have withdrawn behind their respective battalions for the duration of the formal mass shootout. The French artillery is at its usual mass slaughter best.
Part 3-15. In desperation, the Prussians fling thirty squadrons of horse cavalry (equivalent to thirty battalions of infantry) straight at the French line in a ground-shaking mass charge. The seven French battalions of the center and left of their line respond by going into hollow square formation. The three French battalions at the right of their line are able to use the protection of high, thick hedges and farmers’ stone walls to remain in line formation.
Part 3-16. Notice how the French squares are rotated so that they become in effect diamonds. This piece of textbook infantry drill serves two purposes simultaneously. First, it prevents adjacent squares from shooting into each other. Second, it ensures that the enemy is shot at from two different but converging directions at once. The enemy is thus caught in the proverbial “crossfire.” This effect is called “interlocking fields of fire” in proper military parlance. Notice that the voltigeurs have taken shelter inside the squares of their respective battalions. The French have placed their cannons at the corners of some of their squares.
Part 3-18. The Prussian cavalry having been successfully repelled, all ten of Morand’s battalions form columns of battalion by division, the voltigeurs once more out front in skirmish order, and keep driving forward. The Prussian Army at Auerstädt goes into terminal disintegration and flees the field in disorder.
At Auerstädt, Davout’s III Corps has just smashed to pieces an enemy force more than twice its size. Morand’s Division had a lot to do with the triumph of III Corps. Napoleon has simultaneously achieved matching success a few miles away at Jena. In a few days, Napoleon and his Grande Armée will march in triumph down the wide streets of Berlin.
One of Morand’s brigade commanders, General Debilly, was killed in action at the head of his men at Auerstädt. The inevitable and steady attrition of his best soldiers and subordinate commanders over years of near-constant warfare contributed to Napoleon’s eventual downfall. From 1793 to 1812, Napoleon’s one French army fought against, and crushingly defeated, in successive turns, various sized armies of British, Italian Piedmontese, Austrians, Ottoman Turks, Russians, German Saxons, German Prussians, Spaniards, and German Bavarians.* In some cases, he defeated some of the enemies just named several times over. But the fatal inescapable fact for Napoleon was that the wear and tear—the attrition—on his army was cumulative while each of his enemies were able to recover and rebuild themselves during the time intervals in which Napoleon was fighting some other enemy. In effect, all the other great powers of Europe were playing tag team with their several armies against Napoleon’s one army. And—during their time intervals of recovery, each of Napoleon’s enemies slowly trained themselves to emulate his methods. Napoleon was only able to maintain his army at full strength on paper by filling his ranks with progressively younger and younger hastily trained boys, causing the quality of his army to fall off from the peak years of 1805-1807. When all his enemies finally rose against him simultaneously in the years 1813-1815, Napoleon was doomed to defeat. The end came on the farmers’ fields just south of a Belgian town named Waterloo on 18 June 1815.
* There was no such thing as a single unified country of Germany until 1871. Before 1871, what is now Germany was divided into dozens of German-speaking independent countries of which Prussia, Bavaria, and Saxony were the biggest and most powerful. It was Prussia, whose capital city was Berlin, which unified the many German states under its leadership to create modern Germany in 1871.