Jena, Battle of

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immediate aftermath
analysis of the battles
the larger picture

On the morning of 14 October 1806, Napoleon I attacked the Prussian army under Prince Friedrich Ludwig Hohenlohe west of Jena. Napoleon did not realize, and later tried to minimize, the fact that his troops outnumbered the Prussians by more than two to one (96,000 to 38,000). Although French tactics were more flexible, the Prussians fought well on the whole. Indeed, according to French accounts, the Prussian infantry attacked and counterattacked on several occasions, splitting the French forces and driving them back. But the Prussians were too few, never pushed their advantages, and permitted the French to grow in strength throughout the fight. After six hours of intense combat, the French attacked in force. Two hours later the Prussian army broke and fled in disarray. The French sustained 5,000 casualties; the Prussians 11,000 plus 15,000 captured.

Meanwhile, 19 kilometers (12 miles) north of Jena at Auerstedt, an epic defensive battle took place. Marshal Louis-Nicolas Davout, with a single corps, met and defeated the main Prussian army under the Duke of Brunswick (63,000 men), a force more than twice the size of Davout's corps (26,000 men). At approximately the same time Napoleon attacked Hohenlohe at Jena, Davout encountered the Prussians at Auerstedt. Although the Prussian cavalry attacked at will, it accomplished little against the French squares. When the Duke of Brunswick was mortally wounded early in the fight, King Frederick William III personally assumed command, and the situation for the Prussians improved. But after five hours of battle, just when the Prussians were about to turn the French flank, Davout's last division arrived, threw the Prussians back, and turned their flank instead. Shortly after noon, the Prussian army broke completely. The victory was Davout's, and it was complete, but the cost had been high. French casualties were more than 25 percent killed and wounded. Few French units of any size escaped unharmed. The Prussians suffered more, with 12,000 killed or wounded and 3,000 captured.

immediate aftermath

Following this double disaster, the Prussian army disintegrated before the rapid and ruthless French pursuit. The retreat was poorly planned and directed. Supply and transport broke down completely. Too many units dissolved into undisciplined masses intent only on escaping the pursuing French. Fortresses and depots, where troops might have been reorganized and reequipped to fight another day, were surrendered by their commanders, most without a fight. A year earlier Napoleon had destroyed the Austro-Russian coalition in three months. Now he overran Prussia in as many weeks.

analysis of the battles

Major credit for destroying the Prussian army must go to Davout. Without question, the major battle was fought at Auerstedt, not at Jena. Had Davout been overrun on 14 October, the Prussians might have escaped to join the Russians, making a final French victory over the coalition more difficult. Considering another alternative, had the Prussians defeated Davout at Auerstedt, they might have concentrated against Napoleon at Jena and handed Napoleon his first major defeat. Indeed, this is what Napoleon feared the most. That is why when Napoleon heard of the extent of Davout's victory at Auerstedt, he refused to believe it. After two days of pouting, Napoleon finally accepted the facts and wrote Davout a letter of congratulations, but he stated that it was for Davout's subordinate generals and men. Even on the battle streamers of the French regiments that fought at either battle, Napoleon had Jena, not Auerstedt, emblazoned.

Napoleon had misjudged where the major Prussian army lay and thus gave his full attention to the action at Jena and none to that at Auerstedt. When he moved on the false assumption that the main Prussian army lay before him, Napoleon's imagination took over. By late afternoon, he had convinced himself he had 60,000 or more Prussians before him, when he actually had less than half that number. Napoleon also benefited at Jena from the actions of good subordinates, most notably Marshal Jean Lannes. But he also had an obliging enemy. The Prussians went far toward defeating themselves, both at Jena and Auerstedt. They had grossly overestimated the strength and effectiveness of their own army. They had advanced without waiting for the Russians, extended their forces westward, and made themselves vulnerable to a French counterstroke. They had no effective central command, the armies of Brunswick and Hohenlohe were separated, and there was little coordination between the two.

the larger picture

Many contemporaries at the time, and many historians since, have seen these battles as a confrontation between the old and the new, in which the traditional was measured against the modern and found wanting. But the Prussian army in 1806 was not the museum piece so widely accepted among historians and critics over the past two centuries. On the contrary, the Prussian army was among the most enlightened military establishments of the Napoleonic era. It had the Militärische Gesellschaft (Military Society), an academic society where officers gathered weekly to discuss the changing art of war. This was the first and only military study group of its time, and had members from practically every garrison in Prussia. Their discussions covered the entire spectrum of war and laid the foundation for the later reform of the Prussian army after its defeat at Jena and Auerstedt. Prussia also had the first true general staff in the modern sense, as well as educational institutions designed specifically to develop leaders. In theory, Prussia had both the organization and intellect that would enable it to meet the challenge of the French. All that remained was the test of battle. And there Prussia failed.

In the final analysis, the inexperienced Prussian army fought the most seasoned and experienced army in the world. In the decade before Jena and Auerstedt, while the Prussians were at peace, the French army had been waging war almost unceasingly. Additionally, Prussian senior leaders were not motivated by a dominant strategic vision, nor did they possess Napoleon's energy and ruthlessness. Before any shot was fired, the Prussians had allowed Napoleon to concentrate an enormous amount of combat power in an area from which he threatened the very existence of the Prussian state. What made the difference at Jena and Auerstedt was the lack of personal initiative among Prussian commanders; poor coordination among their forces and within each command; a lack of a combined arms doctrine between infantry, cavalry, and artillery; and a weak, almost nonexistent, central control. And yet, seven years after Jena and Auerstedt, Prussia fielded one of the finest armies of the Napoleonic era. The rapid rejuvenation of the Prussian army in this short span demonstrated that the old system was by no means totally decrepit, as so many people then and now still believe.

See alsoFrench Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars; Napoleon; Prussia.


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Charles E. White