1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Eylau

EYLAU (Preussisch-Eylau), a town of Germany, in east Prussia, on the Pasmar, 23 m. S. by E. of Königsberg by rail on the line Pillau-Prostken. It has an Evangelical church, a teachers’ seminary, a hospital, foundries and saw mills. Pop. 3200. Eylau was founded in 1336 by Arnolf von Eilenstein, a knight of the Teutonic Order. It is famous as the scene of a battle between the army of Napoleon and the Russians and Prussians commanded by General Bennigsen, fought on the 8th of February 1807.

The battle was preceded by a severe general engagement on the 7th. The head of Napoleon’s column (cavalry and infantry), advancing from the south-west, found itself opposed at the outlet of the Grünhöfchen defile by a strong Russian rearguard which held the (frozen) lakes on either side of the Eylau road, and attacked at once, dislodging the enemy after a sharp conflict. The French turned both wings of the enemy, and Bagration, who commanded the Russian rearguard, retired through Eylau to the main army, which was now arrayed for battle east of Eylau. Barclay de Tolly made a strenuous resistance in Eylau itself, and in the churchyard, and these localities changed hands several times before remaining finally in possession of the French. It is very doubtful whether Napoleon actually ordered this attack upon Eylau, and it is suggested that the French soldiers were encouraged to a premature assault by the hope of obtaining quarters in the village. There is, however, no reason to suppose that this attack was prejudicial to Napoleon’s chance of success, for his own army was intended to pin the enemy in front, while the outlying “masses of manœuvre” closed upon his flanks and rear (see Napoleonic Campaigns). In this case the vigour of the “general advanced guard” was superfluous, for Bennigsen stood to fight of his own free will.

The foremost line of the French bivouacs extended, from Rothenen to Freiheit, but a large proportion of the army spent the night in quarters farther back. The Russian army on the other hand spent the night bivouacked in order of battle, the right at Schloditten and the left at Serpallen. The cold was extreme, 2° F. being registered in the early morning, and food was scarce in both armies. The ground was covered at the time of battle with deep snow, and all the lakes and marshes were frozen, so that troops of all arms could pass everywhere, so far as the snow permitted. Two of Napoleon’s corps (Davout and Ney) were still absent, and Ney did not receive his orders until the morning of the 8th. His task was to descend upon the Russian right, and also to prevent a Prussian corps under Lestocq from coming on to the battlefield. Davout’s corps advancing from the south-east on Mollwitten was destined for the attack of Bennigsen’s left wing about Serpallen and Klein Sausgarten. In the meantime Napoleon with his forces at and about Eylau made the preparations for the frontal attack. His infantry extended from the windmill, through Eylau, to Rothenen, and the artillery was deployed along the whole front; behind each infantry corps and on the wings stood the cavalry. The Guard was in second line south of Eylau, and an army reserve stood near the Waschkeiten lake. Bennigsen’s army was drawn up in line from Schloditten to Klein Sausgarten, the front likewise covered by guns, in which arm he was numerically much superior. A detachment occupied Serpallen.

The battle opened in a dense snowstorm. About 8 a.m. Bennigsen’s guns opened fire on Eylau, and after a fierce but undecided artillery fight the French delivered an infantry attack from Eylau. This was repulsed with heavy losses, and the Russians advanced towards the windmill in force. Thereupon Napoleon ordered his centre, the VII. corps of Augéreau to move forward from the church against the Russian front, the division of St Hilaire on Augéreau’s right participating in the attack. If we conceive of this first stage of the battle as the action of the “general advanced guard,” Augéreau must be held to have overdone his part. The VII. corps advanced in dense masses, but in the fierce snowstorm lost its direction. St Hilaire attacked directly and unsupported; Augéreau’s corps was still less fortunate. Crossing obliquely the front of the Russian line, as if making for Schloditten, it came under a feu d’enfer and was practically annihilated. In the confusion the Russian cavalry charged with the utmost fury downhill and with the wind behind them. Three thousand men only out of about fourteen thousand appeared at the evening parade of the corps. The rest were killed, wounded, prisoners or dispersed. The marshal and every senior officer was amongst the killed and wounded, and one regiment, the 14th of the Line, cut off in the midst of the Russians and refusing to surrender, fell almost to a man. The Russian counterstroke penetrated into Eylau itself and Napoleon himself was in serious danger. With the utmost coolness, however, he judged the pace of the Russian advance and ordered up a battalion of the Guard at the exact moment required. In the streets of Eylau the Guard had the Russians at their mercy, and few escaped. Still the situation for the French was desperate and the battle had to be maintained at all costs. Napoleon now sent forward the cavalry along the whole line. In the centre the charge was led by Murat and Bessières, and the Russian horsemen were swept off the field. The Cuirassiers under D’Hautpoult charged through the Russian guns, broke through the first line of infantry and then through the second, penetrating to the woods of Anklappen.

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The shock of a second wave of cavalry broke the lines again, and though in the final retirement the exhausted troopers lost terribly, they had achieved their object. The wreck of Augéreau’s and other divisions had been reformed, the Guard brought up into first line, and, above all, Davout’s leading troops had occupied Serpallen. Thence, with his left in touch with Napoleon’s right (St Hilaire), and his right extending gradually towards Klein Sausgarten, the marshal pressed steadily upon the Russian left, rolling it up before him, until his right had reached Kutschitten and his centre Anklappen. By that time the troops under Napoleon’s immediate command, pivoting their left on Eylau church, had wheeled gradually inward until the general line extended from the church to Kutschitten. The Russian army was being driven westward, when the advance of Lestocq gave them fresh steadiness. The Prussian corps had been fighting a continuous flank-guard action against Marshal Ney to the north-west of Althof, and Lestocq had finally succeeded in disengaging his main body, Ney being held up at Althof by a small rearguard, while the Prussians, gathering as they went the fugitives of the Russian army, hastened to oppose Davout. The impetus of these fresh troops led by Lestocq and his staff-officer Scharnhorst was such as to check even the famous divisions of Davout’s corps which had won the battle of Auerstädt single-handed. The French were now gradually forced back until their right was again at Sausgarten and their centre on the Kreege Berg.

Both sides were now utterly exhausted, for the Prussians also had been marching and fighting all day against Ney. The battle died away at nightfall, Ney’s corps being unable effectively to intervene owing to the steadiness of the Prussian detachment left to oppose him, and the extreme difficulty of the roads. A severe conflict between the Russian extreme right and Ney’s corps which at last appeared on the field at Schloditten ended the battle. Bennigsen retreated during the night through Schmoditten, Lestocq through Kutschitten. The numbers engaged in the first stage of the battle may be taken as—Napoleon, 50,000, Bennigsen, 67,000, to which later were added on the one side Ney and Davout, 29,000, on the other Lestocq, 7000. The losses were roughly, 15,000 men to the French, 18,000 to the Allies, or 21 and 27% respectively of the troops actually engaged. The French lost 5 eagles and 7 other colours, the Russians 16 colours and 24 guns..