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Heilsberg

First Encounters
The Armies
Preliminaries
The Battle
Other Resources

 

 

The Battle

At around 9.30 am on the morning of 10th June Bennigsen's outposts reported the French advancing on the left bank of the Alle. From the direction of Guttstadt. Bagration, at that time on the right bank of the river with the rearguard, was ordered to cross over to the left and join forces with a small Russian force under General Barasdin and contain the French advance. Barasdin's soldiers were falling back before the mass of French cavalry under Marshal Joachim Murat who had advanced ahead of the main infantry units early that morning. All this had taken some considerable time, with Murat's troopers coming into line piecemeal owing to the distribution of their advance. By 12 .00 am Bagration's arrival on the field near Bewernick succored Barasdin's troops and stabilized the line as the Russian infantry deployed to meet the French advance, the Russian cavalry in close support.

The battlefield of Heilsberg looking from the position of Legrands 
French division towards the Russian lines. (Photograph by Jan Kowalik) 

As Murat's cavalry closed on the Russian line they were stalled by a heavy fire from Russian batteries concentrated around Bewernick village. His own horse artillery fire proving ineffective, Murat awaited the arrival of Marshal Nicolas Jean de Dieu Soults corps, at that time just debouching onto the field, for assistance. Soults first two divisions, under Generals Carra-Saint-Cyr and General Saint-Hilaire, together with his the corps light cavalry, deployed about 400 metres from Bewernick while the bulk of his artillery, some 36 guns, came into action against the Russian batteries causing them to withdraw, thus allowing the French infantry to advance on the village while Soults third division, under General Claude Legrand now came into line and moved on the village of Langwiese.

St. Cyr's division cleared the Russian's out of Bewernick at 3.00 pm after heavy fighting, but was forced to call on assistance form General St. Hilaire's division as Bagration reformed his line for a counter-attack. While these events were taking place, Murat had moved his cavalry towards Langwiese, hoping to fall upon the Russian's as they fell back from the village, now under threat of being outflanked by Legrand's regiments. Seeing the movement of Murat's cavalry, Bagration threw his own troopers into the fray before the French could deploy. In all, around 25 squadrons of Russian horse smashed into the massed divisions of French cavalry, sending them back in disorder and capturing two cannons. At the same time Bennigsen himself had ordered another 25 squadrons of cavalry (including 15 squadrons of Prussians), Dragoons, Cuirassiers and Hussars, under General F.P.Uvarov to move forward and aid Bagrations beleaguered forces while three regiments of J�ger moved to occupy Lawden village. These troops, finding that the French had already taken possession of the village, took up a strong defensive line at the Lawden wood; Uvarov then moved his squadrons to support Bagration's much battered infantry line which was once more falling back before pressure from St. Cyr's division.

Swerving away from the French musket fire Uvarov's troopers moved to their right, smashing into the jumbled mass of Murat's cavalry who were still endeavoring to sort themselves out after their clash with Bagration's squadrons. In this massive m�l�e the French cavalry were once again forced back in confusion to Langwiese.

The Road from Bewernick to Heilsberg. 
The River Alle is to the right, behind the trees. (Photograph by Jan Kowalik)

It was at this stage of the battle that Napoleon, who had been on the field since 10.00 am, but had remained strangely inactive, sent forward General Anne-Jean Savary with two regiments of his Imperial Guard fusiliers and a strong battery of artillery to support Murat. Having to pass through a very narrow defile, which Savary had noted was the only line of retreat for Murat's horsemen, the French general quickly deployed his regiments in front of Langwiese village, just in time to allow the retreating squadrons of French to filter through his lines and reform at the rear. Still coming on directly behind Murat's bewildered cavalry the Russian massed squadrons came under a lashing fire from Savary's infantry and supporting artillery. Leaving the ground covered with dead and wounded men and horses the Russian's fell back in order to reform. Poor Savary now received a severe tongue lashing from Murat who reprimanded him with strong language for refusing to advance and clear the ground to his front. Savary, in turn, but with all the tact and training of a diplomat, explained quietly that there were strong forces of Russian infantry, together with artillery supports now deploying against him, and that it would be rash in the extreme to move forward until the French cavalry had re-grouped. Murat rode away, cursing, and the fact of the matter was that he owed the salvation of his cavalry to the timely arrival of Savary's regiments who, together with fresh squadrons sent forward by Napoleon, had taken the pressure off Murat's jumbled troopers.

With the repulse of the Russian cavalry Bagration was compelled to draw-in his line, and with the massed divisions of French cavalry, now re-formed, he saw no option but to pull back behind the Spuilbach stream.

At 6.30 pm his forces crossed the Spuilbach in some disorder, wagons and gun teams became intermixed all trying to sort themselves out and reform a new line. It was only the timely action of the Tsar's brother, Grand Duke Constantine, that managed to save Bagrations forces from destruction. Constantine had been in command of the Russian Imperial Guard at the battle of Austerliz and had fought in many engagements, only to die of cholera in 1831. Ugly, brutish and never popular both within and outside the army, he had renounced his right to succession of the Russian throne so that he could marry the Polish Countess Grudzinska. Ever on the alert, Constantine, who had been posted on the right bank of the Alle with his guard division, now ordered four batteries of artillery to move to a point opposite the confluence of the Spuilbach stream and open fire. Some 40 Russian cannon swept the left bank of the Alle and caused the French divisions of St. Cyr and St. Hilaire, who were moving forward to cross the stream, to compress their columns to avoid the awful cannonade. The fire of Constantine's guns gave Bagration a chance to re-establish his battle line. Only St. Hilaire's division managed, after heavy loss, to cross the Spuilbach while St. Cyr shook his men out and tried to re-establish order in their ranks. The battle here now became a firefight as the Russian and French volleyed one another while their cavalry re-formed. 

View of the ground over which the French advanced into the concentrated 
fire of Constantine's guns. (Blue marker on map)

On the French left flank Legrand's division had begun to advance against the Lawden wood, having secured Lawden village and allowed time for Savary's regiments to advance to his support. The Russian J�ger regiments that had been placed in the wood gave a good account of themselves and extended their line to the right and left as the French endeavored to outflank them. Only after losing over 1,000 men did the Russian's fall back, in good order, allowing the French to occupy the wood, which became a invaluable support to their left flank.

Looking across the battlefield towards the position 
of redoubt No 2. (Photograph by Jan Kowalik) 

It was now 5.30 pm and for more than seven hours Bagration, together with Uvarov's cavalry and J�gers had held back everything that the French had thrown against them. Bennigsen now ordered them to fall back, which they did preserving their formations. Totally worn-out by the severe fighting and marching they had sustained over the last few days Bagration's brave infantry marched off along the main road towards Heilsberg, crossing the Alle to the right bank and taking up a reserve position. The hard fighting J�gers also moved towards the Alle, but did not cross over, and took station in a fieldwork close to the river. Uvarov's cavalry, their horses blown, withdrew to the Russian right wing, gathering up Bagration's troopers as they retired. Bagration himself, covered with dirt and his uniform singed with powder burns but still full of fight, joined general Kamenskoi in redoubt No 3. At 6.00 pm the field in front of the main Russian position was cleared of their forces. During Bagration's retirement Bennigsen had ordered the 3rd, 7th and 14th divisions to cross over the Alle to the left bank, soon to be followed by the 1st and 2nd divisions who formed a general reserve behind redoubts No 1 and 2.

The Russian artillery now opened on the French with more than 150 cannon. Not being able to reply to this with any real effect the French had little option but to attack. St. Hilaire's division, with St Cyr's division and Murat's cavalry in support, moved on redoubt No 1 on the right wing.

On the left General Legrand and General Savary advanced on redoubt No 2, the 26th light infantry regiment of Legrand's division leading the way. With heads bent as if they were struggling through a rainstorm the 26th were hit by the most murderous fire from canister and musketry. Closing the gaps in their ranks and stepping over the mangled bodies of their comrades the 26th took the redoubt at around 7.00 pm. Here they endeavored to consolidate their gains before the inevitable Russian counterattack. This came in the form of three powerful infantry regiments, the Kaluga, Sonsk and Perm, each of three battalions, or close to 4,500 men. The 26th light, together with a six-gun battery and two captured Russian guns opened a steady fire on the advancing green uniformed masses. With their first volley the French brought down almost the entire first two ranks of the Perm regiment as well as killing the Russian general, Warneck. Despite this terrible fire the Russian's drove out the French at the point of the bayonet. While the Perm regiment hit the redoubt full on, the Sonks and Kaluga regiments moved left and right of the work to take it in flank and rear. Fired at from all sides the 26th light fell back in disorder, taking with them in their flight the 55th line regiment which St. Hilaire had sent from his left to bolster the position. At the moment the Russian infantry re-took redoubt No 2 Bennigsen sent forward a mass of Prussian cavalry including units from the Zieten dragoons and the Tawarzyc hussars. This glittering mass of horsemen charged in on the right of the redoubt, there catching General Jean-Louis Espagne's French cuirassier division as it came forward to support Legrand's battle line. The French cavalry gave as good as they received for a time but were eventually forced back behind Savary's fusilier regiments. Shearing off to the left in order to avoid the French musket fire, the Prussian cavalry now burst upon the disordered ranks of the 26th light and the 55th line regiments. Cutting and slashing right and left the horsemen hewed a bloody path through the disordered French infantry, capturing the "eagle" of the 55th regiment in the process. Only with the arrival of fresh French cavalry the Prussian's, at last, were forced to retire.

The whole left wing of the French army was now in utter confusion. Savary and Legrand had managed to form most of their infantry into squares as the Russian cavalry rampaged around them, and they now withdrew their whole line back across the Spuilbach stream. The timely arrival on the field of General Verdier's division of Marshal Lannes corps, together with the musket and cannon fire from St. Hilaire's division managed to stabilize the situation and avoid total ruin.

Having his hands full with his attack on redoubt No 1, as well as having to contend with his left flank being exposed by the withdrawal of Legrand and Savary, St. Hilaire had no option but to conform with the general retirement. St. Cyr's division also moved back across the Spuilbach, placing his troops in square formation behind St. Hilaire's left rear.

The Russian's now also fell back to their own main lines after once more securing redoubt No 2, but allowing the French to remain masters of the Lawden wood. At 9.00 pm the battle looked as if it war over.

Marshal Lannes, however, was far from convinced that the French were yet finished. One of Napoleon's true friends, the hard-bitten Marshal, without it seems consulting the Emperor, made up his mind to send in one more attack. He formed General Verdier's division into column and moved it forward over the darkening plain against redoubt No 2. Bennigsen had been warned of this attack by a French deserter and had covered the approaches to the redoubt with masses of infantry and over 60 cannon. Verdier's battalions melted away under a withering fire to which they could make hardly any response. After losing over 1,600 men Verdier pulled his division back to the outskirts of the Lawden wood.

The last action took place on the extreme left flank where the 18th line regiment of Legrand's division had moved against Grossendorf in an attempt to cut Bennigsen's communications. The Cossacks posted here, together with regular cavalry regiments managed to totally bottle-up the French, and only with the arrival of two battalions and a battery sent by Legrand, were they able to pull back to their own lines. Not to be outdone, the Russian's also followed up this withdrawal by moving two J�ger battalions against the Lawden wood, only to be forced back after a fire-fight in which they were enfiladed by French horse artillery. The battle now faded away with sporadic gunfire at around 11.00 pm.

The whole plain from the Lawden wood to the River Alle, from Langwiese and Bewernick across the Spuilbach stream and up to and beyond the Russian redoubts was covered in dead and wounded men and horses. Arms, legs, heads and torsos lay everywhere, together with broken muskets, helmets, knapsacks, shakos, straps and bits of food and paper, all now becoming soaking wet as a heavy rain began to fall. Stripped by the peasants and soldiers alike, the corpses were piled four or five deep in front of the redoubts. Along the Spuilbach stream many had drown while trying to reach water by others crawling over them as they drank. The River Alle was bedecked with bodies on both banks while others floated down on the lazy current. It may never be possible to give an accurate figure for the losses incurred on both sides, but most sources agree that the French lost at least 10,000, and the total could have been as high as 12-13,000; while the Russian's admitted to 3,000 killed and 8,000 wounded and these too could have numbered more in the region of 12-14,000.

The whole battle had proved that Napoleon's military skills were on the wane well before 1812. He allowed his commanders to do their own thing and was not on top of events. Twenty-four more hours and he would have had most of his army on the field. He also had every chance to outmaneuver the Russian's by cutting them off from Koenigsberg as most of the French forces were on the left bank of the Alle and in position to hold Bennigsen at Heilsberg while placing themselves squarely across the Russian line of retreat.

The actions of "le beau sabreue", Marshal Murat, during the battle was less than inspiring. He managed to bungle almost every chance to combine his cavalry with the movements of the infantry, and left Espagne's cavalry division out on a limb on the French left wing with no apparent orders for that general to co-ordinate his splendid cuirassiers with Savary's or Legrand's regiments. Also for Marshal Lannes to risk a whole division during almost total darkness, for no other reason than to prove to everyone on the field that he had arrived, was no more than childish bravado.

All in all the great battle of Heilsberg was only the dress rehearsal for Napoleon's famous victory at Friedland only four days later, on 14th June 1807. What Heilsberg did prove was the resilience of the fighting men on both sides. In those days of sheer foot slogging over vast distances while trying to keep body and soul together and at the same time being prepared, at any moment to fight for their lives, one cannot but admire the spirit and tenacity of those men. Heilsberg has been sadly overlooked by many who would rather bath in the light of Napoleon's more dazzling exploits. Suffice it to say that, if only for the sake of those brave men who now lie under the soil of modern Poland, without any visible markers which so much dominate other fields of glory, they are worthy of their small place in history.

 
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