Having been routed at Jena-Auerstedt, the remaining Prussian forces fled eastwards, with the French in hot pursuit. Prussia had held its own against the French in the War of the First Coalition but now it’s once admired army was being chased home with its tail between its legs as Prussian forces at Erfurt, Magdeburg and Potsdam surrendered. Perhaps the ultimate blow to Prussian pride came on 27th October 1806, when Napoleon’s forces occupied the Prussian capital, Berlin.
The battle of Jena-Auerstedt certainly cemented Napoleon’s military supremacy, but it did not represent the decisive end to the campaign Napoleon had hoped for. Though Prussia’s forces were more or less defeated, offering little resistance as the French swept towards Berlin, its leadership was not. Refusing to surrender, King Friedrich Wilhelm III fled eastwards to his Russian allies, who would continue the fight. For the first time, Napoleon’s Grand Armee were to enter Poland.
From Retreat to Reform
The loss of prestige, however, cannot be considered as wholly negative for the Prussian army. Such a crushing defeat confirmed to Prussian elites the urgent need for military reform if Prussia was to continue to remain a European power. Several key Prussian military thinkers, such as Clausewitz and Scharnhorst, saw action in the battles – Clausewitz was actually taken prisoner during the battle – and would use this experience to influence new military reforms. By analysing what made the Grande Armee so successful, the Prussians could adopt similar techniques and principles as well as examine potential weaknesses in Napoleon’s military machine. Key reforms included:
- The introduction of levee en masse which created a national army based on universal military service – this would ensure that there would always be trained reserves
- Adoption of an all-arms corps-based system
- Move towards the adoption of ‘directive command’ (Auftragstaktik) – where greater emphasis is placed on the outcome of a mission rather than the means and ways of achieving it, providing greater flexibility
- Introduction of a General staff for the entire Prussian army to organise and coordinate units – officers were to be selected on merit rather than heritage
Carl Von Clausewitz
The military was not the only Prussian entity to undergo reform; Prussian society also underwent significant changes. In the wake of such a humiliating defeat, Prussians united around common and strengthened patriotism. This patriotic spirit would help to motivate and unify conscripts against a clear enemy in future campaigns against Napoleon – the kick in the teeth represented by the occupation of Berlin would occupy a dark and bitter place in Prussian memory.
The Prussian government also introduced several key civilian reforms, including:
- The abolition of feudal privileges
- A new, reformed university system, which made education, not class or heritage, the basis for selection to public office
- Other bureaucratic careers outside of the military were opened up to the middle classes on the basis of merit
The battles of Jena-Auerstedt represented an important learning curve for Prussia. Within the century, a dramatic reversal of fortunes would occur: Prussian forces marched into Paris after just a one -year campaign. Prussia would learn its lessons, but it would take time. Before then though, they would have to once more take on Napoleon.