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Napoleon and the War of the Fourth Coalition


As the Napoleonic Wars raged, the Third Coalition of allied nations fell apart shortly after their opponent, Napoleon, had won at Austerlitz; as ever Britain was remained officially at war with France, and this time so was Russia. They tried to negotiate peace with Napoleon, but he didn’t offer any concessions, and things didn’t progress. By October 1806 a Fourth Coalition had formed up, with the pair joined by Prussia, who was increasingly concerned by Napoleon’s gains in Germany, and especially worried that the newly formed Confederation of the Rhine created a new power base in the region they wanted to dominate instead. Prussia wanted to have a major role in central Europe, and not be relegated to a minor French state, which was exactly what Napoleon seemed to be doing, dictating settlements like taking Prussia’s land on the Rhine in return for other regions.

When it was rumoured that Prussia’s newly gained land in Hanover (given by Napoleon) might be given instead to the British in a peace deal the Prussians had had enough, and they made an ultimatum to Napoleon to withdraw troops to the Rhone. He refused, and consequently, Britain, Russia, Prussia and Saxony allied to stop Napoleon. However, the Prussians were poorly organised and governed by military commanders who dated from the Seven Years War, although their age may have been used unfairly after the coming disaster to judge them. Prussia could have waited for Russian troops to arrive, but decided to move first: the king was told by his advisors that a quick attack would bring benefits. 145,000 men were available. 50,000 were sent under Hohenlohe to induce Saxon support, and 70,000 under Brunswick moved towards Thuringerwald. But the Prussians attack was confused, even hostile to each other, and no decisive action was taken, just wasteful movement.

The Defeat of Prussia

Napoleon reacted quickly, and decided to attack Prussia with an army 200,000 strong via a quick turning march. The Prussian army he faced had the King of Prussia, Hohenlohe, and the actual commander - the Duke of Brunswick - all bickering, and as Napoleon struck in early October they were surprised. Napoleon first took their flank and then positioned himself to take Berlin. Napoleon intended to attack the main Prussian army and sent two Marshals, Davoût and Bernadotte, to block the Prussian retreat, but Bernadotte refused to co-operate. Other leaders would have had him shot later, but not Napoleon with his strange soft spot for Bernadotte.

Napoleon reached a Prussian force at Jena on October 14th and attacked, but the force he defeated was just a section of the full force, and it was Davoût who found the main Prussian army at Auerstädt. With odds of two to one against Davoût fought a defensive action until his corps fully arrived, and with Brunswick killed the Prussians were beaten. Prussia’s army was broken and pursued to total defeat, their ability to function as a coalition member ended. Berlin fell, the army was split up and picked off by the French, and Prussian General Blucher had to surrender the last of the Prussian forces. He would get his revenge. The Prussian defeat was not due to low morale, and a little too much has been made of their “old” tactics: instead the Prussian commanders failed to adequately co-ordinate their forces, allowing their army to be divided. But in four weeks 145,000 troops had been nullified, and Prussia’s Great Power status imperiled.

A Winter War

Prussia’s king decided it opportune to leave for Russia, and Napoleon followed, seizing Warsaw, hoping to bring victory. Prussia had not officially surrendered, and Russia was massing: Napoleon had to defeat them before Austria massed from behind the French. In Warsaw Polish rebels told Napoleon they would be able to incite rebellion and raise an army to help, and while a substantial force was raised, the national significance has been overstated. Meanwhile Napoleon induced the Ottomans to attack Russia and declare war on Britain.

Napoleon wished to now destroy the Russian army and feared it was retreating to set a trap, but the Russians, under General Bennigsen were actually coming forward, although after battles at Pultusk and Olymin they did fall back. The weather and road conditions were both terrible, making it difficult for Napoleon to resupply. Bennigsen now waited until January 1807, before attacking and then retreating, Napoleon in pursuit. Napoleon caught up on February 8th at Preussiches-Eylau, where the battle was fought in a bitter blizzard. Napoleon had an inferior force (45,000 to 70,000) and aimed simply to secure his hold while reinforcements arrived, and the battle was a highly destructive draw, but it was Bennigsen who faltered and retreated first, and Napoleon called it a victory. Austria was refusing to act, and the rest of Europe waited when an attack may have damaged the extended French army. Napoleon focused on taking Prussian fortresses.

Napoleon Secures Victory

Napoleon now refreshed his army. Bennigsen’s poor attempts to attack in June saw him blocked after he gave away his intentions and positioning, and then he tried to cross the river at Friedland, which had one bridge, several pontoons, and would take all night. Napoleon heard, moved, caught him, and the divided and trapped army was beaten. It was 60,000 versus Napoleon’s 80,000, but Benningson managed to save some troops after finding a ford. Napoleon now marched on to Tilsit, and Russia felt obliged to come to terms.

The Tsar was annoyed at Sweden’s failure to act and pulled out of the collapsing coalition; the Tsar was also threatened at home by a peace party who didn’t see why Russia’s eastern empire was threatened by Napoleon’s domination of the west. A meeting was arranged on a pontoon in the middle of the Niemen River between the Tsar and the French Emperor, and the Treaty of Tilsit was agreed. Prussia was to be occupied by the French, pay huge fees of 140,000 francs, and lose half its land to both the Confederacy of the Rhine and the new Duchy of Warsaw, and have its army limited to 42,000. Russia had to agree to the Duchy, take some of Prussian Poland for itself, let Napoleon have free reign in West Europe and ally with France against Britain. The latter remained at war, alone again. Europe was now divided into two power blocs, one under Napoleon, one under Russia, who was allowed to target Sweden, Finland and the Ottomans. If possible, France and Russia were jointly to carve up the Ottoman Empire.

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