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19th Century Articles
The French vs. German Strategy of Warfare 1871
Invention of Counterinsurgency
Alfred Thayer Mahan: Advocate for Seapower
Americans in the Boer War
Marching to Timbuktu
Charge of the Polish Light Horse at Somosierra
The War between Norway and Sweden 1808
Gonzales: Crucible of Texas Revolution
Sheridan's Southern Plains Campaign
Milvern Harrell: Dawson Massacre
Mexican American War
Giuseppe Garibaldi
Solferino: Slaughter and Rebirth
Battle of Lundy's Lane
Battle of Paris
Stephen Douglas and Popular Sovereignty
Napoleon's Campaign Of 1809
Capture of USS President
The Fenian Raids
Military History of War of 1812
Austerlitz: Napoleon Makes His Own Luck
The Failures at Spion Kop
Combatants in Black Hawk War
Tunisian Army in Crimean War
Giuseppe Garibaldi
The Mitrailleuse
The Grande Armee of 1812 in Russia
The French Campaign of 1859
The French Intervention in Mexico
The Master's Misstep
Trafalgar Remembered
Rorke's Drift

Recommended Reading

Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon's Grande Armee

The Wars of Napoleon

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The Master's Misstep
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.[1] 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."[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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,[8] 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.'"[9] 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."[10] 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.[11] 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."[12] 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.[13] 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.[14]

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."[15] 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.[16] 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.[17] 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."[18] 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.[19] 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.[20] 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."[21] 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.

[1]. David G. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon: The Mind and Method of History’s Greatest Soldier . (New York: Scribner, 1966), 486.

[2]. Napoleon to Berthier 15 October, 1806 The Jena Campaign , Interim Report 2, 11008C, 97.

[3]. Napoleon to Duroc, 12 October, The Jena Campaign , Interim Report 2, 10991C, 84.

[4]. Gunther E. Rothenberg, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon . (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1978),, 129.

[5]. Ibid., 148.

[6]. John R. Elting, Swords Around A Throne: Napoleon’s Grand Armee , (New York: Da Capo Press, 1988), 529-530.

[7]. Berthier, Order of the Day, 14 October, 1806, The Jena Campaign , 11004C, 91.

[8]. John G. Gallaher, The Iron Marshal . (London: Greenhill Books, 1976), 363.

[9]. Davout to d’Hunebourg, Report of the III Corps: The Battle of Auerstadt, The Jena Campaign , Interim Report 3, 131.

[10]. Guthenberg, The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon, 149.

[11]. Albert Sidney Britt III, Ed. Thomas E. Griess, The Wars of Napoleon , (New York: SquareOne Pub, 2003), 69.

[12]. Elting, Swords Around a Throne , 530.

[13]. Britt, Atlas of Napoleonic Warfare , 71.

[14]. Gallaher, The Iron Marshal , 135.

[15]. David G. Chandler, The Military Maxims of Napoleon . Trans. LTG Sir George C. D’Aguilar (London: Greenhill Books, 1994), 61.

[16]. Gallaher, The Iron Marshal , 112-115.

[17]. Elting, Swords Around a Throne , 17.

[18]. Chandler, Campaigns , 489.

[19]. Ibid., 489-495.

[20]. Ibid., 479-480.

[21]. Davout to Napoleon, 15 October, 1806, The Jena Campaign , Interim Report 3, 91.

Works Cited


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:

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.
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