Over the course of the French and Napoleonic Wars, the allied forces of Europe declared seven coalition wars against France.
The Battle of Friedland (1807) was the decisive battle of the Fourth Coalition. Deployed against Russian forces, Napoleon was finally able to force the Russians to accept peace with France.
Much was made of Friedland occurring on the same day (14th June) as the anniversary for Napoleon’s victory at Marengo (1800); Napoleon in particular made use of the comparison.
The most significant outcome of the battle was the signing of the Treaty of Tilsit. The treaty established Napoleon as the undisputed master of continental Europe; cementing his position as one of history’s icons.
Frederick William III
To understand Friedland’s origins, we must look back towards the defeat of the Austrians at Austerlitz (1805). In the ‘Battle of the Three Emperors’, Austria had been decisively defeated and had to sign the humiliating Treaty of Pressburg involving the creation of a French puppet state in Central Europe known as the Confederation of the Rhine. Meanwhile the other German great power of Prussia had been neutral. Napoleon’s rapid rise following Austerlitz had unsettled the King of Prussia, Frederick William III.
The Prussians had only just acquired the German state of Hannover via treaty with the French in December 1805. Hannover had initially been a British possession. If Napoleon were ever to negotiate peace with Britain, returning Hannover to British control was likely to be part of any peace treaty.
This was not the only issue that the Prussians faced at the ending of the Third Coalition. Peace between Napoleon and Russia had the potential to include further cessions of Prussian territory to the east. It was in this climate where Prussia declared war on France and began the War of the Fourth Coalition.
The Prussian army that had once been the envy of Europe was exposed to be an outdated and inefficient fighting force. The Prussians were completely routed by the French in the twin battles of Jena and Auerstedt.
The best example of the supremacy of French arms was at Auerstedt. Napoleon’s best general, Davout, was able to defeat a Prussian army despite being outnumbered two to one the Prussian army ceased to be an effective fighting force. While some Prussian officers would continue fighting with the Russian army, the Prussian campaign was essentially over.
Negotiations however were fruitless. Napoleon wanted Prussia to cede their possessions west of the Elbe along with paying heavy war reparations and joining the French system of alliances against Britain. Frederick William III fled to the eastern city of Konigsberg to await aid from the Russians.
Prussian acquisitions during the
The French continued to advance eastwards, occupying Prussian cities as they went until they confronted the Russian army at the town of Eylau. This battle is famous for the loss of life involved in the fighting without a significant victory for either side.
Eylau was the first setback in a streak of complete French victories which had shaken the myth of Napoleon’s invincibility.
Shaken, but not destroyed. It would be at Friedland where Napoleon would squash these new doubts on his ability.
This sequence of pages go into more depth on the Battle of Friedland, exploring the major engagements, and offering the implications of Napoleon's victory.
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