Following Eylau, Napoleon and his Russian counterpart Bennigsen engaged in a series of ‘cat and mouse’ actions that would end at Friedland.
They would both attempt to strike at what appeared to be a weak point in the other’s army and retreat before having come in contact with the main force. Friedland began initially as part of these actions.
Bennigsen had managed to catch Marshal Lannes, one of the most competent generals in Napoleon’s army as well as one of his closest friends, commanding a single corps in the town of Friedland. Bennigsen believed he had enough time to cross the River Alle which bordered Friedland and destroy Lannes’ lone corps
Due to the corps system, Lannes knew that Napoleon would be close enough to support him and so engaged in a delaying action with Bennigsen to buy more time for Napoleon to arrive.
It should be noted that Lannes engaged the main Russian army with only 26,000 men. The fact he was able to successfully fight a delaying action is a testament to his skill as a general. Lannes fought for much of the 13th June 1807 while Bennigsen decided to double down and bring the majority of his army over the river.
This was a huge gamble. If the skirmish turned into a full-fledged battle, Bennigsen would be fighting with his back to a river with no clear avenues to retreat. He misjudged the speed in which the French army could move. By the 14th June, Bennigsen’s fears came into fruition.
The French reinforcements arrived throughout the night with Napoleon close by.
The battlefield of Friedland was dominated by the meandering River Alle that ran past the town. The river also ran past the town of Sortlach which was positioned on the southern end of the battlefield. To the north were the villages of Heinreichsdorf and Posthenen. Prior to the arrival of Napoleon in the afternoon, there was bitter fighting to the north and south of the battlefield.
A Russian assault on Heinrichsdorf was intercepted by cavalry led by General Grouchy. After much fighting, Grouchy’s forces were reinforced and they were able to hold their position. At the woods surrounding Sortlach, the Russian left wing steadily advanced on the French after very bitter fighting. Yet, the French in Sortach Wood were not broken and remained in order.
As stated previously, Bennigsen did not want to confront the main French army. The longer the battle went on, the more French soldiers would be able to arrive onto the battlefield.
Napoleon at Friedland
Following Napoleon’s arrival, Bennigsen issued orders for a general retreat. Napoleon’s response was to press his advantage and he ordered a French assault. Despite heavy fire from Russian artillery, the French advanced near Friedland. So close in fact that the Russians had to fire into Friedland.
At this point the town of Friedland burst into flames; disorientating the retreating Russian forces. With their escape route under threat, the Russian retreat became increasingly more panicked. North of Friedland some Russians were able to escape via fording the river. Yet the result would have been unmistakeable to the men involved. The Russians were defeated.
Napoleon at the cost of 10,000 casualties had inflicted double upon the Russian forces. Many of these Russian losses were due to the retreat. Many men had unfortunately drowned in their desperation to escape the battle. With this, the Russian will to resist had been broken.
Both Napoleon and Tsar Alexander I would meet following Friedland and discuss the treaty which would secure Napoleon mastery of Europe; if only for a short time. The former Corsican minor noble had truly ascended to be the forefront of European politics.
Up Next: The Consequences of Friedland
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