This Day in History: Jena-Auerstädt

The Napoleonic wars have a magnetic pull, and I often find myself studying them when I should be doing other things, like taking a shower, or cutting down trees.

The magnetism is due in part to the grand scale of the battles, the magnificent uniforms, and the fact that the wars were part of the first titanic struggle in Europe between nationalist, republican armies and entire coalitions of royalists.

On this day in 1806, Napoleon’s army was victorious over the Prussians at the twin battles of Jena and Auerstädt (pronounced YAY-na and OY-er-shtet). Napoleon’s forces were outnumbered at both battles; by three to two at Jena, and two to one at Auerstädt.

A no good, very bad day for Prussia

Small map
Click image for large map

Napoleon had entered Prussia (present-day Germany) from the south, to force a decisive battle with the Prussians, who were part of the Fourth Coalition formed against France. The Third Coalition had been defeated the previous December at the battle of Austerlitz. As the two armies neared the expected decisive battle, Napoleon separated two of his corps, led by Davout and Bernadotte, and sent them north to cut off any Prussian retreat. At the same time, the Prussian commander, Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand, Duke of Brunswick, had also split his forces and sent about half of them further south than the main body.

On the morning of October 14, Marshal Louis Davout discovered that his corps had camped extremely close to the larger portion of the Prussian army, near Auerstädt. In fact, his corps was still assembling, and he had only one division immediately available, as the rest were still on the move.

Napoleon, meanwhile, had his hands full at Jena, to the south. Through a couple of setbacks and near-disaster maneuvers from his subordinate generals, he outlasted the Prussian commanders who were indecisive at a few key moments. Jena was a classic Napoleonic victory.

Davout kicks butt

Marshal Louis Davout
Marshal Louis Davout

Auerstädt was crucial. Davout, without any reassurance of support, faced the Prussians down and prepared for a fight with only one division on line. Each time his position was about to fail, another of his divisions would arrive on the battlefield, and each successive Prussian assault was too weak to break the French line. Davout ultimately defeated half of the Prussian army with a single, fragmented corps, and ensured that the enemy could not reconstitute later. The Duke of Brunswick was mortally wounded near the end of the battle, and Napoleon’s forces took Berlin on October 26.


Napoleon enters Berlin
Napoleon enters Berlin

Here is one of the best lessons from Jena-Auerstädt: A good answer now is better than an excellent answer too late. The Prussians equivocated when they could have just destroyed Davout one division at a time. Davout could have tried to wait until his corps was in fine order, or until he had some support from the rest of the French army (which would have been a disaster). Instead, he did the best he could with what he had, and stuck by his guns. Discipline is not characterized merely by the strength to stand strong, but also by the guts to make a stand even when you don’t think you’re ready.

Marshal Davout was regarded by Napoleon as indispensable after Auerstädt, and was made Minister of War immediately prior to Waterloo in 1815. One of history’s great “What If” questions is: What if Davout had been at Waterloo?

What great lessons do you take from Jena-Auerstädt? Are there other events that stand out in your mind which have similar lessons? Write a comment below, or connect with me on Facebook or Twitter and put in your two cents!

Other events of interest which occurred on this date:

1947: Chuck Yeager breaks the sound barrier (flying faster than the speed of sound) for the first time.

1926: The children’s book Winnie-the-Pooh, by A. A. Milne, is first published.

1322: Scottish king Robert the Bruce defeats English king Edward II at Byland, finally winning independence for Scotland.

1066: William the Conqueror defeats Harold Godwinson at Senlac Hill, near Hastings; the decisive victory of the Norman Conquest of England.

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