History is dotted with military leaders able to transform history with cunning and tactics. Gustavus Adolphus, Napoleon, George Washington are but a few from this elite group. But for every great leader there is a vastly larger population of mediocre and lackluster commanders. Though not nearly as famous, lackluster generals play significant roles in shaping history through inaction or through incompetent action. At the upper levels of command, the effect is magnified. The Russian commanders, Marshal Kamenskoi and General Bennigsen, provide evidence of the influence of incompetence throughout their campaign in Poland. Repeated failures by Kamenskoi and Bennigsen at the operational and tactical levels of war allowed Napoleon to escape defeat at the Battle of Eylau.1 Petre, 45. 2 Acton, 284. 3 Rothenburg, 100.
The maneuvers prior to the Battle of Eylau foreshadowed the tactical errors by Bennigsen. Initially, Marshal Kamenskoi commanded the Russian army. Worn down by decades of military service, Kamenskoi’s maneuvers in Poland were “a mixture of impetuosity and hesitation.” 1 In the face of Napoleon’s advance across Poland, Kamenskoi, “having lost his head, ordered a retreat to the Russian frontier.” 2 Bennigsen took the Russian command from Kamenskoi and continued to retreat north, beyond Napoleon’s attempted manoeuvre sur les derrières. 3 The armies would clash again after a brief respite from the Prussian winter.4 Colmar, 257-265. 5 Petre, 46. 6 Colmar, 25.
Bennigsen’s tactical decisions at Eylau demonstrated the shortcomings that led to Russian defeat. Both nights preceding the battle, the French occupied the town of Eylau, providing some shelter against the freezing temperatures. The Russians camped north-east of Eylau, forbidden to build warming fires by Bennigsen. With temperatures dipping to 1° Fahrenheit, Bennigsen’s “senseless order” forced Russian soldiers to freeze before the battle. 4 Bennigsen’s rigid adherence to old wartime tradition shows his inability to adapt to changing situations. According to Petre, a Napoleonic scholar, Bennigsen “can hardly be described as a great general” and any battlefield success is due to the “valour and obstinacy” of Russian troops, “rather than his tactics.” 5 After the Russian 4th Division captured Eylau, Bennigsen’s demonstrates his tactical incompetency. The Russian army held Eylau for only thirty minutes before evacuating. Bennigsen ordered the withdrawl to try to lure the French to attack the strong Russian position behind the town. His scheme failed, the French simply gained shelter at the expense of the Russian soldiers. 67 Colmar, 304. 8 Petre, 46. 9 Colmar, 266. 10 Rothenberg, 102.
Bennigsen’s tactical deficiencies were compounded by his timidity. Even within the grasp of victory, Bennigsen lacked the character and strength of will to continue the battle, against the will of his entourage and the Prussian staff. 7 8 Though the Russians sustained heavy casualties, the French situation was critical. Augereau’s corps, blinded by a blizzard, was annihilated in twenty minutes with artillery case-shot and infantry fire. 9 A Russian counter-attack struck into Eylau, almost reaching Napoleon. Bennigsen failed to recognize and seize the opportunity to capture Napoleon, and only a desperate, but brilliant, cavalry charge by Murat saved Napoleon and strengthened the French center. 1011 Colmar, 305. 12 Colmar, 305.
Murat’s charge shifted the momentum of battle, and France seized the initiative. At the end of the second night of battle, Bennigsen considered and eventually decided to retreat, ignoring his general’s advice to continue the battle. Colmar Freiherr von der Goltz, a Prussian Field Marshal and writer, stated that “it is the general who first admits the battle to be hopeless who loses it.” 11 Bennigsen’s lack of resolve and corresponding retreat gave victory, though pyrrhic, to Napoleon. In retreat, Bennigsen displayed his operational incompetency. Goltz argued that Bennigsen’s route towards Königsberg “meant the abandonment of direct communication with Russia, and the grave danger of being forced away and completely enveloped by the enemy.” 12 Napoleon was infamous for relentlessly chasing enemies in retreat. The exhausted condition of Murat’s cavalry reserve after their desperate charge saved Bennigsen from such a fate.
The tactical and operational blunders combined with the weak resolve of Russian commanders allowed Napoleon to escape defeat at Eylau. Though Napoleon was checked, he remained in command of Prussia and temporarily defeated the Russian army. Had Bennigsen acted more aggressively and utilized his bold Prussian staff and subordinate generals, he might have halted Napoleon and the Grand Armée from expanding across Europe.
Acton, Baron John Emerich Edward Dalberg, The Cambridge Modern History, volume 9, edited by Sir Adolphus William Ward, George Walter Prothero and Sir Stanley Mordaunt Leathes, London: University Press, 1906.
Colmar, Freiherr Von Der Goltz, Jena to Eylau: The Disgrace and Redemption of the Old-Prussian Army, trans. by Charles Francis Atkinson, New York: E. P. Dutton and Company, 1913.
Petre, Francis Loraine, Napoleon’s Campaign in Poland 1806-7, London: S. Low, Marston and Co., 1901.
Rothenberg, Gunther, The Napoleonic Wars (Smithsonian History of Warfare), London: Harper Paperbacks, February 2006.