|The Master's Misstep
by Drew Betson
On 14 October, 1806, French forces achieved decisive victory in pitched battles
against Prussian forces in the fields near the towns Jena and Auerstadt. As the
battle commanded by Napoleon at Jena approached its finish and the Prussian
lines began to break, Napoleon maintained many of the elite foot soldiers of
the Imperial Guard in tactical reserve. After overhearing a soldier yell
"Forward!" Napoleon retorted, "This can only be a young man with no beard who
wishes to prejudge what I am going to do; let him wait until he has commanded
in thirty pitched battles before pretending to give me his opinion." This
vignette plays to the common perception of Napoleon as the singular man with
decision-making ability in his Grand Armée. While it was true that on his level
of command, Napoleon was his own operations and intelligence officer and
dictated orders from the movements of corps to the state of supplies,
Napoleon's actions on campaigns provides for the historian a truly amazing
military mind. One of his greatest victories, however, was not based on this
genius for war, but largely on a series of mistakes. The unfolding of the Jena
Campaign begs to question what was truly important on the battlefield in that
time. Napoleon had already proved his mastery of maneuver in the Battle of
Austerlitz, but the lack of intelligence and subsequent potential for disaster
in October, 1806 implies that there was something more to the existence of the
Grand Armée than only its leader. The truth lies in the importance of leaders
and their abilities to perform in Napoleon's seemingly ultra-centralized
command. The conduct of Napoleon and Marshal Louis Davout, commander of III
Corps, in the Battles of Jena and Auerstadt proves that not only did Napoleon's
genius for the tactical battle make him great, but more importantly in this
campaign, the command system he developed with his subordinates with respect to
initiative and mission-based orders that paved the way to decisive victory. The
true talent and genius of the emperor lay in his selection of his senior
officers that would act at the decisive points of the battlefield. Easily
contrasted with the Prussian decision-making in the fight, Napoleon's system
emphasized what was most important in winning this battle and, in turn,
deciding the campaign.
Napoleon adopted a unique staff system that encapsulated the superiority of his
command. The collection of talented officers on his staff existed to provide
him information in order to plan and execute operations. His Chief of Staff,
Marshal Louis Berthier, translated Napoleon's orders and ensured their delivery
to the commanders that needed them, but was expected to strictly adhere to
Napoleon's word. The corps system itself emphasized the power of the
commander as he remained in the center for the duration of the battle.
Approaching Jena, he adopted the bataillon carrée formation, in which
each arm of the fighting force is only one day's march from any other. Such
a system seemed to establish Napoleon as the sole decision-maker. In the Battle
of Jena and the ensuing Battle of Auerstadt, fought north of the main body of
Napoleon's Army, initiative played a critical role.
In the Battle of Jena, Napoleon exhibited his acumen for the art of war by
manipulating the friendly and enemy situations on the battlefield to stage the
campaign's decisive battle. Upon making contact in the west, the Emperor
devised a plan incorporating significant envelopment of a numerically inferior
force, his favored method of waging battle. His plan called for the initial
deployment at a close interval as dictated by the terrain North and Northwest
of Jena. The initial attack would push the Prussians into more open plain in
order to deploy the rest of the fighting force he had gathered near Jena from
the West, Southeast, and East, Marshals Augereau, Ney and Soult, respectively.
Their commitment would weaken or break the Prussian line awaiting Davout's
envelopment on the Prussian left flank or rear from Apolda. Davout would
close the door on the Prussian forces and decisively conclude the campaign.
Though a real copy of the dispatch of Davout's orders did not survive the
battle, the report of III Corps on the Battle of Auerstadt from the night of
13 and 14 October states, "the Chief of Staff added: ‘If Marshal Bernadotte is
with you, you will be able to march together, but the Emperor hopes that he
will be in the position which he indicated to him at Dornburg.'" The plan
was masterful with tremendous insight to the nature of the battlefield and the
implications of terrain and proper utilization of entire force structure.
The implementation of Napoleon's main force in the Battle of Jena evidenced his
true genius for the intricacies of maneuver on the battlefield. Rothernberg
states in his work on Napoleonic warfare that Napoleon's maneuvers "were
delicately timed affairs, depending on tight security, good intelligence, [and]
precise planning." On 13-14 October, however, Napoleon acted on bad
intelligence and Marshal Berthier's addition to Napoleon's order to Davout
developed ambiguity in his planning. Further emphasizing the lack of precise
planning in accordance with his own maxim, in the early morning of 14 October,
(0100 hrs), Napoleon dictated a badly written order relying on the experience
of his Grand Armée in this dawn attack. These grievous mistakes by the
master of modern warfare at the time had the potential of the complete escape
of the Prussian main body.
One must question how such a situation would yield the result the French saw at
the close of 14 October, 1809. On Napoleon's strategy, John Elting states in
his work on the Grand Armée that the "tactics came from a shotgun marriage of
Royal Army theory with Revolutionary improvisation [and,] in the hands of many
of his generals and marshals those tactics could be a bludgeoning….A very few,
like Davout…had skills of their own." Therein lay the most important aspect
of Napoleon's command. The execution of the remainder of the battle established
a dichotomy between Napoleon's commanders and with Prussian leaders. The
differences in conduct of Davout and those of Bernadotte and the Prussians
brought to bear the key attributes of leaders in maneuver warfare.
With two discretionary orders in hand, Bernadotte failed to decisively engage
his I Corps in either battle in the Jena Campaign. He hesitated in acting as
Napoleon's forces continued to engage Hohenlohe and Ruchel, Prussian army
commanders outside Jena, and Davout's corps of 26,000 fought 60,000 Prussians
at Auerstadt. Bernadotte's failure to act nearly bought him a court martial
and almost cost him his life, but for the ambiguity in the discretionary orders
he was given. This would lead to troubled relations in years to come, including
the hatred of Marshal Davout.
Marshal Davout, on the other hand, instinctively acted upon his discretionary,
or mission-based, orders. Napoleon stated in his maxims, "a great captain
[against a superior force] supplies his deficiencies by courage, and marches
boldly to meet the attack…profiting by his [adversary's] indecision." In
the end of the Austerlitz Campaign, Marshal Davout is misled by the Russian
commander into believing that an armistice would be signed and that he should
cease his ambitious pursuit. Upon accepting, Napoleon assured him that he had
been deceived in a Russian plan to allow for the escape of more Allied
soldiers. Davout's role in the plan for the Battle of Jena provided an
opportunity to close the door on the retreating Prussians for this campaign.
This objective defined Davout's orders until, in the early fog he happened upon
a large Prussian fighting force that could only be the main body of the enemy
Army. Both sides were significantly surprised and confused. Marshal Louis
Davout embodied Napoleon's maxim on the plain of Auerstadt. Perhaps a product
of having originally been a cavalry officer, unlike many others, Davout seized
high ground to meet the numerically superior Prussians. Multiple times, the
Marshal takes full advantage of Prussian indecisiveness. Upon first making
contact with French forces in the night of 13 October, Brunswick evades enemy
action "especially as he believed that Napoleon in person was at Naumburg."
Furthermore, Prussian delays in attacking in order to allow the entire force to
come on line provided precious time for Davout to reinforce his position with
General Friant deploying to cover the French right. The decisive point of the
battle occurred as the Prussians continued to fail in exploiting any advance
they made, especially against Davout's southern flank. Davout defeated the
numerically superior force when General Morand employed his divisional
artillery against the flank of the pride of the Prussian army. Though not
without a heavy toll on Davout's III Corps, the Prussians broke and yielded a
decisive French victory in the campaign. Though Napoleon committed Davout's
corps into the decisive point of an entirely different battle plan, his
mission-based order, and the Marshal's execution given it, evinced the most
important element of Napoleon's command system.
Napoleon's command at the Battle of Jena is a testament to his military mind on
the tactical battlefield. He achieves a great victory when his men began in
such close order that their chests touched the backs of the men to their
front. Following the battle, Napoleon was thoroughly surprised by one of
Davout's couriers with a message stating that Davout had "found the enemy…and
more than 60,000 men disputed the victory with the 3rd Corps." His surprise
evidences the blunders in intelligence and in the precise planning of what
intended to decisively defeat the 4th Coalition. The true victory in this
campaign was gained by action in Auerstadt and resulted from the selection of
officers within the Grand Armée. The initiative that Davout exhibited in
October, 1806 turned an almost failed swing at the Prussian military system
into one of the most decisive victories in military history. Despite the
shortcomings of Bernadotte, Napoleon's selection of officers and an emphasis in
his command system on initiative, especially at the decisive point of the
battle, proved to be most important in yielding victory. This emphasis,
combined with Davout's aggressive action, allowed III Corps to continually take
advantage of Prussian indecisiveness and sheds light on what was most important
in the master's command on the battlefield.
. David G. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon: The Mind and Method of
History’s Greatest Soldier . (New York: Scribner, 1966), 486.
. Napoleon to Berthier 15 October, 1806 The Jena Campaign , Interim
Report 2, 11008C, 97.
. Napoleon to Duroc, 12 October, The Jena Campaign , Interim Report
2, 10991C, 84.
. Gunther E. Rothenberg, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon .
(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978),, 129.
. Ibid., 148.
. John R. Elting, Swords Around A Throne: Napoleon’s Grand Armee ,
(New York: Da Capo Press, 1988), 529-530.
. Berthier, Order of the Day, 14 October, 1806, The Jena Campaign ,
. John G. Gallaher, The Iron Marshal . (London: Greenhill Books,
. Davout to d’Hunebourg, Report of the III Corps: The Battle of Auerstadt, The
Jena Campaign , Interim Report 3, 131.
. Guthenberg, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon, 149.
. Albert Sidney Britt III, Ed. Thomas E. Griess, The Wars of Napoleon
, (New York: SquareOne Pub, 2003), 69.
. Elting, Swords Around a Throne , 530.
. Britt, Atlas of Napoleonic Warfare , 71.
. Gallaher, The Iron Marshal , 135.
. David G. Chandler, The Military Maxims of Napoleon . Trans. LTG
Sir George C. D’Aguilar (London: Greenhill Books, 1994), 61.
. Gallaher, The Iron Marshal , 112-115.
. Elting, Swords Around a Throne , 17.
. Chandler, Campaigns , 489.
. Ibid., 489-495.
. Ibid., 479-480.
. Davout to Napoleon, 15 October, 1806, The Jena Campaign ,
Interim Report 3, 91.
Chandler, David G. The Military Maxims of Napoleon . Trans. D’Aguilar,
LTG Sir George C. Greenhill Books: London, 1994.
Napoleon I, Emperor of the French. The Jena Campaign . Trans. Robert
G. Breene, Jr. Physical Studies: Nevada, 1967.
Britt, Albert Sidney III. Ed. Thomas E. Griess. The Wars of Napoleon .
SquareOne Pub: New York, 2003.
Chandler, David G. The Campaigns of Napoleon: The Mind and Method of History’s
Greatest Soldier . Scribner: New York, 1966.
Etling, John R. Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon’s Grande Armee . Da
Capo Press: New York, 1997
Gallaher, John G. The Iron Marshal: A Biography of Louis N. Davout .
Greenhill Books: London, 1976.
Rothenberg, Gunther E. The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon .
Indiana University Press: Indiana, 1980.
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Copyright © 2005 Drew Betson
Written by Drew Betson. If you have questions or comments on this article,
please contact Drew Betson at: email@example.com.
About the Author:
2nd Lt Drew Betson is an Armor officer who received his commission as a
military history major from the United States Military Academy at West Point in
2004. He is currently serving as a platoon leader in the 1st Battalion,
76th Field Artillery, 3rd Infantry Division, in Baghdad, Iraq. His
platoon conducts combat escort missions throughout the Greater Baghdad Area.
Published online: 09/04/2005.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.