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  • One week before Christmas, 1806, French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte arrived in the Polish city

  • of Warsaw, then part of Prussia.

  • A year had passed since his great victory over the Austrians and Russians at Austerlitz,

  • and two months since he’d hammered the Prussians at Jena.

  • But Russia still had powerful forces in the field, the most important of which was the

  • Russian First Army, commanded by General Bennigsen.

  • Napoleon would not be master of Europe until it was defeated, and Russia and Prussia forced

  • to make peace.

  • But that winter, Napoleon’s first attempt to trap Bennigsen near Pułtusk got bogged

  • down in thick Polish mud.

  • The Russians withdrew to Białystok. The French army, half-starved and frozen, was ordered

  • into winter quarters.

  • while in Warsaw, Napoleon began a famous affair with a young Polish noblewoman, Marie

  • Walewska.

  • In the late 18th century, the once mighty Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been swallowed

  • up by its neighboursRussia, Austria, and Prussia - in a series of annexations known

  • aspartitions’… until in 1795, a third and final partition wiped Poland off the map.

  • Now Polish patriots looked to Napoleon as their saviourpraying that his victories

  • against their occupiers would lead to the rebirth of a Polish state.

  • Marie Walewska became Napoleon’s mistress in order to further this cause.

  • Ordinary French soldiers, however, had little love for Polandit was impoverished, freezing,

  • and they missed home.

  • Desertion rates soared. There were even a hundred cases of suicide.

  • Marshal Ney, commanding Sixth Corps, sent patrols towards Heilsberg, looking for better

  • quarters.

  • What they found were Russian and Prussian soldiers on the movethey’d stumbled

  • into a surprise winter attack by Bennigsen.

  • Napoleon quickly laid a trap for the Russian army, ordering Ney and Bernadotte to retreat,

  • and lure Bennigsen west, while he led the rest of the army north, to fall on his flank

  • and rear.

  • But the Russians captured a French courier carrying the emperor’s orders to Marshal

  • Bernadotte.

  • Bennigsen, now warned of the trap, ordered a retreat, fighting a series of rearguard

  • skirmishes against the pursuing French.

  • But he refused to give up the city ofnigsberg without a fight, and turned to give battle,

  • at Eylau.

  • The

  • Battle of Eylau, fought over two days, was one of the most brutal of the Napoleonic Wars,

  • fought in freezing conditions, with neither side backing down.

  • Marshal Augereau’s Seventh Corps, advancing into the face of a snowstorm, lost its way,

  • and was cut to pieces by Russian cannon fire.

  • Five French eagles were lost.

  • Napoleon’s army was only saved by a devastating, massed cavalry charge by 10,000 horsemen,

  • led by the fearless Marshal Murat, and remembered as one of the great cavalry charges in history.

  • At Eylau, for the first time as Emperor, Napoleon failed to win a clear victory on the battlefield.

  • He and the Russians covered up the true scale of their losses, but both sides are estimated

  • to have lost a third of their armies in the carnage.

  • After the horrors of Eylau, both armies sought time to rest and recover.

  • Meanwhile, the newly-formed French Tenth Corps under Marshal Lefebvre besieged Danzig, held

  • by 13,000 Prussians under General Kalkreuth.

  • The city came under heavy French bombardment, and infantry assault. After 8 weeks, with

  • no prospect of reinforcement, the Prussian garrison surrendered on 27th May.

  • Napoleon’s northern, sea flank was now secure against any possible Russian landing.

  • The French emperor now commanded an army 190,000 strong, against just 115,000 Russian and Prussian

  • troops.

  • But it was Bennigsen who moved first, launching a surprise attack against Ney’s Sixth Corps

  • on 5th June.

  • Ney conducted a brilliant fighting withdrawal, and escaped.

  • Bennigsen, having lost the element of surprise, and with Napoleon advancing, retreated once

  • more.

  • Four days later at Heilsberg, the French lost 10,000 men in a botched assault against Russian

  • defences.

  • But the Russians continued their retreat the next day.

  • Napoleon thought Bennigsen would head north tonigsberg, but instead he retreated northeast,

  • keeping to the east bank of the Alle River.

  • So when Napoleon’s army marched north, it was Marshal LannesReserve Corps, on his

  • right flank, that next encountered the Russian armynear the small town of Friedland.

  • In the late afternoon of the 13th June, Russian cavalry scouts informed General Bennigsen

  • that they’d found a single French corps at Friedland.

  • Bennigsen decided he had time to cross the Alle River and smash this isolated corps,

  • before the rest of the French army could arrive to save it, and he ordered his army to begin

  • crossing the river.

  • Marshal Lannes, commanding 16,000 men and facing 46,000 Russians, sent an urgent message

  • to Napoleon that he was under attack from the main Russian army.

  • Then he fought a skilful delaying action, hiding the weakness of his force behind a

  • large screen of skirmishers, while gradually yielding ground to the enemy.

  • Lannes was still holding off the Russians as darkness fell.

  • That night, Russian engineers built three pontoon bridges at Friedland, to speed the

  • movement of troops over the river.

  • But Bennigsen was taking a huge risk.

  • If this turned into a major battle, his army would have to fight with its back to the river,

  • and the steep banks of the Mill Stream dividing its left wing from its right.

  • Bennigsen had also badly underestimated the speed at which Napoleon’s Grande Armée

  • would react.

  • The first French reinforcements arrived that night.

  • The Emperor himself wasn’t far behind.

  • By dawn on the 14th June, about 40,000 Russians had crossed to the west bank of the Alle River.

  • Bennigsen ordered an attack on the village of Heinrichsdorf, to turn the French left

  • flank.

  • But French cavalry reinforcements led by General Grouchy intercepted the Russians

  • In more than an hour of charge, and counter-charge, the French horsemen finally drove the Russians

  • back.

  • Marshal Mortier’s Eighth Corps now arrived to reinforce the French centre.

  • In Sortlack Wood, General Oudinot’s elite Grenadier Division fought stubbornly against

  • Prince Bagration’s Left Wingbut was outnumbered by the Russians, and gradually

  • pushed back.

  • Around noon, on a sweltering day, Napoleon himself arrived.

  • He was soon followed by First Corps, commanded by General Victorstanding in for the

  • wounded Marshal Bernadotte, as well as Ney’s Sixth Corps, and the Imperial Guard, under

  • Marshal Bessières.

  • The date, 14th June, held special significance for Napoleon: it was the seventh anniversary

  • of his great victory over the Austrians at Marengo – a good omen, he declared.

  • The battle then entered a lull, as Napoleon assessed the situation, saw Bennigsen’s

  • dangerous position, and issued orders for an attack to take advantage of it.

  • Bennigsen, meanwhile, who was tormented by ill health throughout the day, saw that he

  • now faced the full might of Napoleon’s army, and issued orders for a retreat.

  • But before Bennigsen’s retreat could get underway, at 5.30pm, three salvos from the

  • French guns signalled the start of Napoleon’s attack.

  • It was led by Ney’s Sixth Corps on the right wing, who first cleared Bagration’s infantry

  • from Sortlack Wood.

  • But as Ney’s troops left the cover of the trees, they came under heavy fire from Russian

  • cannon across the river.

  • As the French attack faltered, Prince Bagration rallied his men, and launched a cavalry counter

  • attack.

  • Ney’s corps retreated.

  • But now General Victor’s First Corps came up on his left. Its artillery commander, General

  • narmont, advanced with 30 guns, and blasted the Russians at point blank range with case

  • shot.

  • Hundreds of Russians were mown down within minutes.

  • Under this onslaught, Bagration’s men began to waver, and then retreat.

  • Around 7pm the Russian Imperial Guard launched a desperate counterattack to try to halt the

  • French advance on Friedland.

  • But they were outnumbered, and outgunned.

  • As exploding shells began to start fires in Friedlandthe French centre and left wing

  • joined the attack.

  • With its only escape route under threat, the entire Russian army began a panicked retreat

  • towards the river.

  • But Friedland’s houses and bridges were now ablaze. The town became a deadly trap

  • for the Russians.

  • Many were drowned trying to cross the river, others killed, or captured.

  • North of Friedland, some units were able to escape across a ford, or along the river bank.

  • But there was no disguising the Russiansterrible defeat.

  • The Battle of Friedland was one of the most decisive victories of Napoleon’s career.

  • At the cost of 10,000 casualties, he had inflicted twice as many losses on the Russiansabout

  • 20,000 men killed, wounded, or taken prisoner – 40% of Bennigsen’s army.

  • The Prussians abandonednigsberg the next day, which was occupied by Soult’s Fourth

  • Corps, while Bennigsen’s shattered army retreated across the River Niemen, into Russia.

  • Tsar Alexander’s advisors implored him to make peace with Napoleon.

  • He accepted their advice, and a ceasefire was agreed.

  • Alexander and Napoleon met for the first time aboard a raft in the middle of the River Niemen,

  • near Tilsit, and developed an immediate rapport.

  • Tilsit proved to be one of history’s great diplomatic summits, as the two emperors feted

  • each other for days, with banquets, parades and concerts, then discussed affairs late

  • into the night.

  • A friendship of sorts developedwhilst Russia’s former ally, King Frederick William

  • of Prussia, was left out in the cold.

  • And it was Prussia who would lose most in the Treaties of Tilsit, signed two weeks later.

  • One third of Prussian territory was taken awayto create the new Kingdom of Westphalia,

  • to be ruled by Napoleon’s 22 year-old brother JérômeAnd the Duchy of Warsaw, to be

  • ruled by the King of Saxony, which Polish patriots hoped would prove a stepping stone

  • on the road to their own state.

  • Polish troops were recruited into the Grande Armée, with Polish lancers even forming part

  • of Napoleon’s elite Imperial Guard.

  • Russia only had to give up the Ionian Islands, as Alexander accepted an alliance with Napoleon

  • that left the French emperor master of Europe.

  • Alexander even agreed to join theContinental System’ – Napoleon’s economic blockade

  • of Great Britain, which banned British ships and goods from all French-controlled ports.

  • The System had been established the previous winter by Napoleon’s Berlin Decree.

  • Napoleon hoped that by cutting off British trade with Europe, he’d cause financial

  • chaos and political upheaval in Britainallowing him to make a favourable peace.

  • There was just one problem - the Continental System didn’t work.

  • Not only was it impossible to enforce, and undermined by widespread smuggling, the system

  • damaged French trade just