April 20, 2024

Adventures in Napoleonicisms: An Auerstedt Travelogue

by Jim Owczarski, 6 October 2018

In the Summer of 2017, I spent two wonderful weeks chasing after Napoleonic glory in what was once East Germany.  I have written at length about my experience of researching and eventually visiting Jena, but have neglected to report on what I think is both one of the most pristine and most intriguing of the Napoleonic battlefields I have have been to: Auerstedt.

In this case, however, Auerstedt is sufficiently intact to have permitted me to find each of the viewing points recommended by the book and these, in turn, inform the narrative that follows.

Telling the story briefly, in October 1806, Napoleon, stealing a march on the uxorious Fredrick William III, drove his armies into Thuringia with the intent of destroying the Prussian army before it could attack.  Wrong-footed by the rapid French advance, the Prussians began a retreat from their forward positions, intending to form a new defensive line in the vicinity of Leipzig.  The Emperor, however, did not wait and his V Corps first caught up with and routed the Prussians at Saalfeld (10 October).  Then, three days later, Napoleon himself caught up with what he assumed was the main Prussian army near Jena.  He determined to attack early on the morning of the 14th, but, in the meanwhile, sent both Marshals Bernadotte and Davout on a long flank march to the North and East to cut off the likely route of the Prussian retreat.

Napoleon had not, however, found the main Prussian army.  That force was a good deal to his North and would, in the early morning of 14 October, march straight into the advancing forces of Marshal Davout.  The Battle of Auerstedt was the result.  This is, however, to move the narrative too far forward.

I used many guides to this battlefield, but, somewhat to my surprise, none proved more valuable than Prof. David Chandler’s Jena 1806 from Osprey Publishing.  My experience with these books as battlefield guides has been mixed.  Often they are too old to be useful guides to current conditions or the descriptions of locations is so imprecise as to cause more harm than good.  My wife tells one story about the Waterloo book that still rankles, but that is for another day.

In this case, however, Auerstedt is sufficiently intact to have permitted me to find each of the viewing points recommended by the book and these, in turn, inform the narrative that follows.

It will be remembered that Marshal Bernadotte was told to march around the flank of the Prussian army and assist Marshal Davout in harassing its line of withdrawal.  Bernadotte, however, never rode to Davout’s aid.  Why not has remained the topic of discussion among historians since the event.  Certainly Davout wanted him dead and Napoleon had to be talked out of cashiering him.  What is certain is that Bernadotte got to the point depicted below and concluded he and his men would not be able to get to wherever Davout was.

The Iron Marshal was, in fact, several miles to the North, bivouacking with his men below very similar heights in the vicinity of Bad Kosen.  Marching over the bridge depicted below on the morning of the 14th, he made his way up ridge in the distance along a road that remains treacherous, steep, and which included several switch-backs just to enhance the challenge of the climb.

Auerstedt DAVOUT bridge
I am a big lover of taking “vista” pictures, but I could find no safe way of taking a picture from that height along the road provided.

Once up onto the heights, Davout advanced down a gentle slope perpendicular to the main East-West road that makes its way down to the village of Hassenhausen which was to be the centerpiece of much of the battle.  Then as now the fields here were largely cultivated and development remains limited.  Marching through the fog at a bit before 7:00 a.m., the III Corps’ forward elements would have struck those of the advancing Prussian army near the road that runs North from Hassenhausen to the village of Spielberg.

Auerstedt FIRST encounter
Yeah, right about THERE.  The roads, of course, would not have been anywhere near at grade, resembling nothing so much as trenches.

This early clash is notable for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the Prussian cavalry there were commanded by Gebhard Leberecht von Bluecher.  Rather than wait for other troops to come up, Bluecher charged straight at the advancing French infantry who promptly formed square.  This fight is one of the most dramatic of the entire battle and the spot from which Bluecher’s advance began is marked by the monument depicted below.

Auerstedt Blucher
Well, VORWAERTS, of course.

When people ask me why I love battlefield visits so much, I always include among my answers that, every now and again, you find the precise spot where a little story of war unfolded.  I fully understand the drama of standing at the Angle, on Vimy Ridge, and the like, but finding the smaller dramas has a charm all its own.  During the Battle of Auerstedt, as the battle between Bluecher’s cavalry and the French squares was underway, a battery of Prussian horse guns mistook the Prussian horse for French and opened fire into them.  Bluecher was hard put to convince them they were firing at their fellow soldiers.  Using a number of accounts and some particularly good maps, I was able to locate — within a few feet — the spot from which that battery was firing and take the below picture which depicts the spot where the squares and cavalry would have been fighting.

Auerstedt misunderstanding2
The squares would have been in the small valley in the middle-distance.

As the morning progressed, the Prussians proved unable to break the French squares which even advanced to drive the cavalry back.  Davout, in turn, continued to march in reinforcements to their aide.  As the Marshal arrived on the battlefield, he set up his main point of observation on a small hill located between Hassenhausen and Spielberg.  The hill is still there and his view would have been much like the photograph below.

Auerstedt Davout view
Only with more soldiers.  And cannon.

What followed was a slow build-up of troops on both sides, with the Prussians — on paper significantly outnumbering Davout’s III Corps — unable to bring a critical mass of men to bear to break the French lines.  This included several failed attempts to seize Hassenhausen.  The critical moment of the battle came when one of the principle Prussian commanders, the Duke of Brunswick, was shot through the eyes, not far from the current location of the battlefield monument in his honor.

Auerstedt Brunswick
Recently nicely renovated.

With Brunswick taken from the field mortally wounded, Prussian organization and morale would never fully recover.  There were several bold advances, particularly once the Prince of Orange arrived at about 10:30 a.m., but, in the end, when Davout himself ordered an advance at 11:00 a.m., the Prussian ranks shattered and were chased from the battlefield.

Auerstedt Orange Advance
One half of the Prince’s force (the King imprudently divided his force in half) advanced along this road North.
Auerstedt gourd monument
I do not know why locals have left gourds on this monument which marks one of the furthest advances of Orange’s troops against the French lines.

It is hard to understand how total this defeat was unless you have driven the entire length of the northern edge of the battle space and come to the spot where the last coordinated Prussian defense was attempted by Kalkreuth’s division.  This view looks backwards towards Hassenhausen — almost directly ahead in the far distance — and Spielberg — at the far end of the angled wooded lane in the far distance.

Auerstedt Kalkreuth
He was quickly swept aside as well.

The Battlefield at Auerstedt is definitely a place where one can still hear the guns.  And, if you go, make a point to visit the small museum in Hassenhausen.  Its exhibits are small, though well-curated.  My particular delight, however, was signing the guestbook and seeing all the other visitors — a number of them recent and from America — who joined with me in following the trail of Napoleon.

Auerstedt museum
There is also a battlefield monument on the other side of the road from the museum.

So, what is left to me of Thuringia?  How about some recommendations for gaming the campaign of 1806?  Next time, then.

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