The Confederation of the Rhine: A Bitter Pill to Swallow
The Battle of Austerlitz and defeat of the Third Coalition the previous year marked a significant change in the political and strategic situation in Europe. Napoleon set about establishing a new order in Europe. A key part of Napoleon’s shrewd political plans included the diplomatic isolation and humiliation of Prussia. As part of the Treaty of Pressburg and in return for France’s ‘friendship’, Prussia was required to relinquish control over territories which had formerly been part of the Holy Roman Empire. From these 16 territories, namely Bavaria, Württemberg, Baden, Hesse-Darmstadt and other smaller principalities along the Rhine, Napoleon created the Confederation of the Rhine. This Confederation was meant to act as a neutral buffer zone between France and other eastern European powers including Prussia, whilst simultaneously giving the French increasing influence over German affairs.
October 1805 –
French violate the neutrality of Ansbach
3rd November 1805 –
Treaty of Potsdam
2nd December 1805 –
Battle of Austerlitz
22nd December 1805 – Treaty of Pressburg
12th July 1806 –
Treaty of the Confederation of the Rhine
6th August 1806 –
The Holy Roman Empire is formally dissolved
9th August 1806 –
Prussian troops mobilise
12th September 1806– Prussia invades Saxony
25th September 1806– Napoleon leaves Paris to join the Grand Armee near Bamberg
26th September 1806 – Prussia sends its ultimatum
2nd October 1806 – Prussia’s ultimatum arrives in France
6th October 1806 –
The Fourth Coalition forms
8th October 1806 –
Deadline for French to reply to Prussia’s ultimatum. French advance begins.
9th October 1806 –
Battle of Schleiz
10th October 1806 –
Battle of Saalfeld
14th October 1806 –
Battles at Jena and Auerstedt result in a double French victory
26th October 1806 –
French forces enter Berlin
From Humiliation to Anger
To Prussia, this represented a diminishing of both its territories and political power in favour of strengthening the French political and strategical position, further humiliating the already weakened Prussian state. It was, however, in no position to argue. Though it had not actively participated, Prussia had been on the losing side in the Battle of Austerlitz, in which it had witnessed France decisively beat its long-term, powerful rival Austria.
A long history of mistrust and resentment existed between France and Prussia and it was not easily forgotten. The previous year, French troops had violated the neutrality of Ansbach, a Prussian territory, a move which greatly angered the Prussian people. In a rather melodramatic response, officers of the Prussian Noble Guard sharpened their swords on the steps of the French embassy. To the Prussians, the Confederation of the Rhine represented a clear threat. Continued French interference in northern Germany was deemed intolerable
The Trigger: The Hanover Handover
After the difficult campaign of 1805, Napoleon had been on the lookout for diplomatic ways to secure peace with both Prussia and Britain. Trying to appease Britain, Napoleon offered to return Hanover to King George III – this proved to be a mistake. British interest in the offer was mild; the same cannot, however, be said for Hanover’s neighbour, Prussia.
As part of the Franco-Prussian peace treaty following the battle of Austerlitz, and in return for accepting French presence in Ansbach in 1805, Prussia had effectively been promised by France that Hanover would be returned to them. When it was discovered that Napoleon had promised Hanover to the British, Prussia’s reaction was one of outrage – this was treachery. It was to be the final insult.
In August 1806, under pressure from Berlin and Queen Louise, King Friedrich Wilhelm III secretly resolved to go to war. War planning took place throughout September and early October 1806, during which the Prussians invaded Saxony, with many of the Saxons conscripted into the Prussian army. France had got wind of Prussia’s actions and started preparing for war. On 26th September, the Prussians sent their ultimatum, demanding a withdrawal of all French troops over the Rhine, the return of Wesel, and a guarantee that France would not stand in the way of the formation of a North German Confederation led by Prussia. This ultimatum arrived in Paris on 2nd October and reached Napoleon on the 7th. An affirmative reply was expected by the 8th October, otherwise Prussia would declare war on France.
Fear of increasing French power was not isolated to Prussia alone and on 6th October 1806, it joined a renewed coalition against France. Through the Treaty of Potsdam, ratified in February 1806, Prussia had Russia as an ally and felt ready to take on the French. The War of the Fourth Coalition was about to begin.