Battle of Friedland

The Battle of Friedland was a military engagement of the Napoleonic Wars. It was fought between the French Army, led by Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Russian Army, commanded by Levin Bennigsen, who was a German general in the service of the Russian Empire, on June 14, 1807, near and in the town of Friedland, Prussia (now Russia). The result of the Battle of Friedland was a decisive French victory, which forced Russia to sign the first of the Treaties of Tilsit on July 7, 1807, ending the Fourth Coalition against France as these treaties made Russia and Prussia Napoleon’s allies to fight against his two remaining enemies, Great Britain and Sweden.

Background

During the War of the Fourth Coalition in 1806, Napoleon had moved against Prussia, obtaining a decisive victory at the Battle of Jena. Then, the French had marched into Poland with the goal inflicting a similar defeat on the Russians. Now, opposing the French were Russian forces led by General Count von Bennigsen, who had started to move against the isolated corps of Marshal Jean-Baptiste. To defeat the Russians, Napoleon had ordered Bernadotte to fall back while he marched with the main army to cut off the Russians. Nevertheless a copy of his plan was captured by the Russians, who stopped their march and began to retreat. As Napoleon pursued Bennigsen, the French Grande Armée (Great Army) straggled over the countryside. On February 7, 1807, the Russians had decided to turn around to confront the French at Eylau. The result of the Battle of Eylau had been a draw, with big losses for both armies.

After spending the winter in quarters, the Russian army, under the command of General Bennigsen, had held strong defensive positions in the town of Heilsberg on the Alle River. The French Army, led by Marshals Murat and Lannes, had attacked on June 10, 1807. Although Bennigsen had thrown back several attacks, resulting in huge French casualties, he had to withdraw towards Friedland the next day, arriving there on June 13.

Summary of the Battle of Friedland

The French Army was composed of 81,000 men and 116 cannons, while the Russian Army was made up of 60,000 troops. Napoleon marched on Friedland, but remained dispersed on its various march routes. By 06:00 hours on the morning of June 14, 1804, Bennigsen had his 60,000 men across the river and forming up west of Friedland, with his infantry organized in two lines. Beyond the right of the Russian infantry, cavalry and Cossacks extended the line to the wood northeast of Heinrichsdorf. Napoleon ordered that Ney’s corps would take the line between Postlienen and the Sortlack Wood, Lannes closing on his left, to form the center, Mortier at Heinrichsdorf the left wing, while I Corps under General Victor and the Imperial Guard were placed in reserve behind Posthenen.

At 17:00 hours, Ney charged at the Sortlack Wood, overcoming the Russian opposition and forcing the enemy back. The attack was pushed on toward the Alle. Marshal Ney’s right-hand division under Marchand drove part of the Russian left into the river at Sortlack, while Bisson’s division advanced on the left. A furious charge by Russian cavalry into the gap between Marchand and Bisson was repelled by the dragoon division of Latour-Maubourg. As Ney’s attack subsided and came to a standstill, the Russian reserve cavalry charged with great effect and drove Ney’s men back in disorder. However, other French cavalry divisions drove back the Russian squadrons into the now congested masses of infantry on the Alle river bank, and finally the artillery general Sénarmont advanced a mass of guns within close range of the Russians.

Under a heavy artillery fire, the Russian defence soon collapsed. Ney’s exhausted infantry succeeded in pursuing the broken regiments of Bennigsen’s left into the streets of Friedland. In the meantime Lannes and Mortier had held the Russian center and right on its ground, as their artillery had inflicted severe losses. When the town of Friedland was on fire, the two marshals launched infantry attacks on the Russians as fresh French troops approached the battlefield. Dupont distinguished himself for the second time by fording the mill-stream and launching an assault on the left flank of the Russian center. Although the Russians fought stubornly with ferocity, the French steadily forced them backwards; the enemy lines soon began to disintegrate. The battle was over.

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