The winter campaign of 1806-07 against Russia


Despite having defeated Prussia’s armies and occupying her capital Berlin, Napoleon remained at war with Frederick William. Refusing to sign a peace accord, the Prussian King had retreated to Konigsberg, on the Baltic coast in his Polish dominions. There he awaited the armies of his Russian ally, Tsar Alexander I. A Prussian Corps of 20 000 men, all that had escaped the debacle of Jena-Auerstadt and the subsequent pursuit, would join them.
If Napoleon wanted to conclude the war he had little option but to meet Russia’s forces in Poland. Failure to do so would cause him to lose the resources of Poland, whose population saw him as a liberator. It would also embolden his enemies: the British fleet patrolling the Baltic coast, Prussian popular resistance if he shows to be weak and even Austria, which had mobilised a new army and would love to exact revenge for the humiliating losses resulting from the disastrous 1805 Austerlitz campaign.
A bold advance into Poland would caution these enemies and his entry into that country was indeed also greeted with Polish outbursts of patriotism and a willingness to form and finance new Polish regiments to aid the French. Behind him too, the last Prussian forces had surrendered and more French troops moved up to the front. Napoleon was set for a winter campaign in one of the least developed countries in Europe and with one of its harshest climates.

On 25 November Napoleon leaves Berlin for the Polish front. Three days later, Bennigsen, the German general in command of the Russian first army, quits Warsaw and retreats north behind the Narew River. He is shortly thereafter replaced by the more politically correct but reluctant 75-year-old Marshal Kamenskoi, who immediately begins to plan an offensive.
But when Davout strikes first and forces the passage of the Wkra River in a night assault on Czarnowo, the Russian general gives orders to retreat.
Napoleon sees his opportunity to end the war with a decisive early victory and launches his Corps in pursuit. But the weather is atrocious, the Cossacks omnipresent, hampering the efforts of his light cavalry, and intelligence about the enemy is virtually non-existent.
Making incorrect assumptions, his Corps stumble into 2 separate Russian armies at Pultusk and Golymin. Both turn to face their pursuers and inflict severe checks on the French before resuming their retreat. It was a feature of these battles that the French attacked with virtually no artillery, the roads having become a quagmire of mud incapable of supporting the transport of guns.
Pursuit then was impossible too. In addition, the area was too poor to sustain his army and forced tens of thousands of men to roam the countryside in search of sustenance. A spate of soldier suicides marks the utter exhaustion of the men and Napoleon concedes that the winter campaign has failed. He orders his army into winter quarters. (It is also at this time that he coins the term ‘grognards’ or ‘grumblers’ for his grenadiers.)
For the old Marshal Kamenskoi also, the campaign has been too much. He quits the army and is promptly replaced by Bennigsen, appointed in reward for his ‘victory’ at Pultusk. Buxhowden, who is his senior and commands the 2nd Russian army, promptly resigns his commission. He is replaced by the enterprising Prince Bagration.

Bennigsen is not long in preparing a new offensive, hoping to take advantage of a ‘lull in concentration’ on the part of Napoleon, whose Corps lie ‘comfortable’ in their dispersed cantonments. His task seems to be made easier by Ney’s decision to strike out on a foraging raid in the direction of Konigsberg, Bennigsen’s main supply depot, 190 km east of his base.

He is recalled by a furious Napoleon in the nick of time, and only 60 km from his intended target. Two days later, on 19 January, his cavalry runs into the advance guard of Bennigsen’s army. Suddenly awake to the danger, he warns Bernadotte in the North, who immediately leaves his cantonment and marches south towards the support of the other French Corps in the hope of avoiding isolation and subsequent easy annihilation by Bennigsen’s drive.

Napoleon meanwhile begins to piece together the Russian’s intentions and again formulates the plan that will destroy Bennigsen: the further west that general moves, the easier it will be for Napoleon to cut his line of retreat, encircle him with his converging Corps and inflict on him the crushing defeat that will end the war once and for all.
Couriers are immediately sent out to the various Corps commanders with instructions for the impending campaign. Unfortunately for Napoleon, one rider on his way to Bernadotte is captured by Cossacks. He fails to destroy his despatches and within hours Bennigsen is warned of his impending doom.
The Russian army is immediately ordered to retrace its steps and so begins the retreat and chase that leads to the carnage in the snowy wastes around Eylau.
The failure though of any couriers to reach Bernadotte, and the difficulty of avoiding the Cossacks when trying to maintain communication with Ney, deprived Napoleon of the two Corps that were meant to make up his left flank at that battle, and with it the tactical means to avoid a mere bloody battle of attrition.

The winter campaign had been a duel of thrust and counter thrust. It was clear however that while the Russian high command was capable enough of devising bold offensives in the comfort of their headquarters, their courage and confidence evaporated when coming face to face with Napoleon. Fortunately for them, the Russian soldiers fought with a tenacity that equalled French self esteem.

The French army leaves Berlin

The Eylau-Friedland campaign of 1806-07, G. Nafziger
Greenhill Napoleonic Wars Data Book, Digby Smith
Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland 1806 to 1807, F. L. Petre     
The Campaigns of Napoleon, David Chandler
Crisis in the Snows, James R. Arnold & Ralph R. Reinertsen
Napoleon’s Polish Gamble; Eylau and Friedland 1807, C. Summerville
Friedland 1807, F. G. Hourtoulle                   

J. Delannoie