Back To Top

May 10, 2024

Battle of Jena

  • 0


The battle of Jena (14 October 1806) was one of two simultaneous battles won by the French on the same day and saw Napoleon with most of the Grand Armée defeat the Prussian flank guard at Jena while Marshal Davout defeated the main Prussian force further north at Auerstädt.

At the start of the War of the Fourth Coalition (1806-07) Napoleon was faced with an alliance of Prussia, Russia, Britain and Sweden. Much to his surprise the Prussians decided to attack without waiting for their Russian allies to arrive, and in September 1806 occupied Saxony. At this point most of the Grand Armée was based in Germany, largely in the positions it had taken up after the great victory at Austerlitz had ended the War of the Third Coalition. Napoleon decided to take advantage of this, concentrate his army at Bamberg and attack north across the wooded hills of the Landgrafenberg. This would allow him to advance towards Leipzig and Berlin and force the Prussians to fight a battle.

Napoleon crossed the hills in three columns. On the left was Lannes (V Corps) and Augereau (VII Corps). In the centre was Bernadotte (I Corps) and Davout (III Corps). On the right was Soult (IV Corps), Ney (VI Corps) and a Bavarian contingent. Each of these columns had to operate independently until they emerged from the hills. Napoleon assumed that the Prussians wouldn’t be able to block all three passes with strong forces, allowing at least one of his columns to come to the support of the others if they were blocked. In fact the Prussians hadn’t blocked any of the passes and the French emerged safely on the northern side of the hills.

On 9 October the French brushed aside a small Prussia force at Schleiz, and on 10 October they won a bigger victory at Saalfeld, killing the Prussian commander Prince Louis Ferdinand. Napoleon still didn’t know where the Prussians were, and at the end of 10 October he believed that they would move east to try and block the road to Leipzig. At this point the Prussians were actually off to the west, with Hohenlohe concentrating at Jena and Brunswick further west at Weimar. On 11 October Napoleon realised the Prussians weren’t to his north, but he still didn’t know where they were, and decided that they would probably concentrate at Erfurt, west of Weimar.

On 12 October Napoleon ordered his army to wheel to the left. Davoût and Bernadotte were to form the right flank, at Naumberg and Kosen on the Saale. Further to the south Lannes and Augereau were to head for Jena and Kahla, two more crossing points on the Saale. Ney and Soult were posted a little further to the east to watch for any possible Prussian move in that direction.

On the morning of 13 October the Prussians learnt that the French were in Naumberg. The king summoned a council of war at which two courses of action were considered. The first was to concentrate at Jena and attack the French. If the Prussians had indeed united at Jena on the following day then they might have been able to defeat Napoleon’s divided army in detail, taking on the 56,000 men he had at Jena on the morning of 14 October before Ney and Soult could appear on the scene. The second was for a retreat north from Weimar to Auerstädt then to go north through the pass of Kosen towards Freiburg. Hohenlohe’s flank guard would remain just to the north of Jena, where they would delay the French and give the main body time to escape. The Prussians decided to take the second option.

Napoleon’s first orders for 13 October were for Bernadotte to join Davoût and for Ney to move towards Lannes. Early that morning he received a series of reports that convinced him that the Prussians were now planning to retreat north towards Magdeburg instead of north-east to Leipzig. Napoleon altered his orders in response to this possible move. Davoût was still at Naumberg on the right. Bernadotte and Murat’s cavalry were ordered to move to Dornburg, further south on the Saale. This would fill a gap that was opening up between Lannes and Davoût. Soult was ordered to send one division to Jena while the rest of his corps moved north-west to guard against a move on Leipzig. Augereau was ordered to Jena, Ney to Roda (just to the south-east) while Napoleon moved to join Lannes at Jena.

As Napoleon moved towards Jena he met a messenger from Lannes reporting that he had found 10,000-15,000 Prussians north of Jena and believed that another 20,000-25,000 more were to the west between Jena and Weimar. Napoleon now believed that he had found the main body of the Prussian army and that the Prussians were probably intending to attack Lannes. He sent out a third set of orders. Murat was still to head for Dornburg, as was Bernadotte. At this stage Bernadotte was ordered to support Lannes if he heard the sound of heavy fighting. Soult and Ney were ordered to bring their entire corps to Jena. Davout was to advance west from Naumburg and attack the Prussians at Jena from the north.

When Napoleon reached Jena he found that Lannes had moved part of his corps on the Landgrafenberg, a steep hill that loomed over the town. The northern slopes were gentler, and if the Prussians had occupied the heights in any strength then the French would have struggled to take them or hold onto them. Napoleon decided to try and hold on to this crucial position. The rest of Lannes’ corps was ordered onto the hill, supported by the Imperial Guard. Overnight the French improved the single track that led onto the heights and managed to get their artillery onto the hilltop. Napoleon’s big fear was that the Prussians would attack before his reinforcements arrived, but the night passed quietly. By dawn the leading elements from Soult’s IV Corps, Ney’s VI Corps and Augereau’s VII Corps had arrived around Jena. Napoleon began the day with around 50,000 men at his disposal and by noon that would rise to over 90,000.

By the end of 13 October the Prussians were not where Napoleon believed them to be. Hohenlohe’s flank guard was north and west of Jena. He had around 38,000 men at his immediate disposal. On the left General von Holtzendorff was posted on the Saale with 5,000 men. Tauentzien, with around 6,000 men, was posted just to the north of Lannes. The rest of the army was posted to his west. Another 15,000 men under von Rüchel, spent the night of 13-14 October at Weimar, further to the west. This force didn’t arrive at Jena until the battle was lost and was caught up in the defeat.

The Battlefield

The battle of Jena was fought across a plateau to the north of the town of Jena. It was bordered on the east by the River Saale. Steep slopes led up from the Saale and Jena to the plateau, the most famous of them being the Landgrafenberg. This hill rose 500ft from Jena, but its northern slopes were much lower and very gentle. The southern edge of the battlefield was marked by the valley of the River Muhlbach, which runs west from Jena, before turning south. The ‘Schnecke’ or ‘snail’ pass continued on to the west from the bend in the river. The road from Jena to Weimar ran alongside the Muhlbach and then up the ‘Schnecke’ pass. The eastern side of the plateau was broken by a series of other valleys that led down to the Saale.

A series of villages were scattered across the plateau. Nearest to the Landgrafenberg was Cospeda, the southernmost of a triangle of villages, with Closewitz to the north-east and Lützeroda to the north-west. A second line of villages was located another mile and a half to the north-west. This started at Isserstedt on the ‘snail’ pass, then ran north-east to Vierzehnheiligen, Krippendorf and Nerkewitz. Just to the south of Nerkewitz was the village of Rödingen. Further west was a third line of villages, with Kötschau on the ‘snail’ pass and Gross Romstedt and Klein Romstedt to its north-east.

The Armies on the night of 13-14 October

On the night of 13-14 June most of Hohenlohe’s force (around 28,000 men) was on the western side of the battlefield, around Gross Romstedt, Kotschau and Isserstadt. General Tauenzien’s division of 6,000 men was closest to Napoleon, and was camped around Closewitz and Lützeroda. General Holtzendorf, with 5,000 men from the Right Wing, was camped four miles to the north-east (on the Prussian left), watching a bridge over the Salle at Dornburg. Hohenlohe had around 39,000 men for most of the battle of Jena.

Finally General Ruchel was some way to the west of the battlefield, with 15,000 men. His original orders were for him to follow the main body of the army north, but these were changed and he was put at Hohenlohe’s disposal. His force didn’t arrive until late in the day, by which time the battle was lost. The combined Prussian army was thus 54,000 strong, but Rüchel didn’t arrive in time to take part in the main battle and was instead swept away by the pursuing French after the main fighting was over.

On the French side Davout and Bernadotte were heading north, ready for glory at Auerstädt and ignominy on the roads between the two battles respectively. Lannes was camped on the Landgrafenberg. The leading elements of IV Corps (Soult), VI Corps (Ney) and VII Corps (Augereau) reached Jena, and would be ready to play a part in the battle. At the start of the battle Napoleon had around 46,000 men available, but that would double during the fighting as reinforcements arrived on the scene.

The Battle

Napoleon’s initial plan was for Lannes to capture Closewitz to make more space for his reinforcements. Ney was to deploy to the right of Lannes (although as we will see he ended up on his left). Augereau was to advance along the road towards Weimar then turn north to form up on Lannes’ left. Soult was to head further north along the Saale then turn west, forming the right flank of the French army.

Lannes would face Tauenzien’s 6,000-8,000 men who were now deployed between Closewitz and Lützeroda. The battle began soon after 6am with an advance by Suchet’s division on the right and Gazan’s division on the left. This advance was carried out in the fog, and Suchet’s men ended up veering off to the left, hitting the Prussian line between Closewitz and Lützeroda. By around 9am Suchet had captured Closewitz and part of the road. Gazan had been held up further south at Cospeda. The Prussians had launched a counterattack but that was repulsed. Faced with an attack by two divisions and running short of ammunition Tauenzien decided to retreat from the triangle of village and fall back towards his reserves around Vierzehnheiligen.

Lannes advanced as far at that village, which briefly fell into his hands. At around 9.30 Tauenzien launched a counterattack, which split Lannes’s troops in half and recaptured Vierzehnheiligen, Lützeroda and Closewitz. Part of Lannes’s command was cut off to the north-east of Vierzehnheiligen and the rest was to the south in Isserstedt Forest (east of Isserstedt village). Lannes restored the situation, recapturing Lützeroda and Closewitz. Despite the success of his counterattack Tauenzien was increasingly concerned about the French troops advancing on both flanks – Soult’s leading troops had found his left and Augereau was threatening his right. With this in mind Tauenzien retreated from Vierzehnheiligen towards Gross Romstedt and the main body of the Prussian army. This part of the battle was over by around 10am.

At around 10am the fighting died down in the centre and western parts of the battlefield, but at about the same time fresh fighting broke out in the east. Von Holtzendorff, who had been posted on the far left of the Prussian army, had marched towards the sound of the guns, but his line of advance meant that he ran into Soult’s corps, recently arrived on the French right. Soult’s troops had captured Closewitz, the north-eastern of the triangle of villages. As Saint-Hilaire’s division advanced north-west, they were surprised to be attacked on their right by von Holtzendorff. The Prussians advanced with their right flank leading and their left flank refused, heading towards the right flank of Soult’s corps. Saint-Hilaire responded with great skill. His light infantry was hidden from Prussian view, and he now used it to attack the Prussia left. The Prussians were forced to retreat back to Nerkewitz, where von Holtzendorff hoped to rally. Saint-Hilaire kept up the pressure, and the Prussians were never given the time to reform. Von Holtzendorff’s infantry retreated to the north, and played little further part in the battle. Some of his cavalry managed to reach the main force, but not enough to make any difference.

At first Hohenlohe believed that he was only facing a minor part of the French army, but it was now clear that this wasn’t the case. A messenger was sent to summon Rüchel. Three Saxon brigades were sent south to keep the road to Weimar open (Augereau was further east on the same road). General Grawert, with most of the available Prussian infantry and one Saxon brigade was sent east to face the French around Vierzehnheiligen.

Although the Prussians were preparing for an attack, it was actually Marshal Ney who triggered the third stage of the battle. Having received orders to march to Jena he had left his infantry to make its own way to the field and dashed ahead with his cavalry. He reached Jena at around 9.30, but then had to wait for his troops to arrive. He was finally given orders to advance onto the heights and take up a position to the right of Lannes. When he arrived on the plateau Ney found that Lannes was already in touch with Soult on his right, and so decided to take up a position on his left instead. At this stage Ney had around 3,000 men, a mix of cavalry and infantry.

At around 11am, just as the Prussian reinforcements had formed up facing Lannes, Ney decided to plunge into the fray. He attacked the Prussian line to the south of Vierzehnheiligen. He captured a Prussian gun battery, disrupted the right of their new line, and recaptured the village. Ney’s momentum took him well past Vierzehnheiligen before his attack ran out of steam. This also meant that he was well in advance of the rest of the French line, and when his momentum ran out Ney found himself isolated. He was forced to form square and found himself in the way of a major Prussian offensive. The Prussians had gathered together forty five squadrons of cavalry and eleven Prussian infantry battalions for the attack. They swept past Ney’s isolated force and threated to advance through a gap in the French line.

Napoleon responded quickly. Lannes was ordered to attack through Vierzehnheiligen and Augereau was ordered to take Isserstedt and form a second line behind Ney. At this point Napoleon had very few reserves on the field. The Imperial Guard were still uncommitted, but Napoleon didn’t want them to be used this early in the battle. The main cavalry reserve was still on its way, so all he had was two regiments of cavalry and the guard artillery. The French moves met with limited success. Gazan’s division from Lannes’s corps managed to take Vierzehnheiligen and advanced towards Ney, but then ran into the main Prussian infantry force and were forced back. Augereau had more luck and was able to make contact with Ney and rescue his isolated command.

At this point the Prussians had some 20,000 infantry in a strong position in the centre of the battlefield, ready to attack the stretched French lines, but in one of the most famous incidents of the battle Hohenlohe decided to halt his advance and wait for Rüchel to arrive from Weimar. This slow and stately style of warfare might have worked against lesser commanders, but against Napoleon it just meant that the Prussians had surrendered the initiative. A prolonged fire fight now took place between the two lines, with the French getting the best of the action. Lannes also launched another attack around Vierzehnheiligen, but was repulsed. The French had more success on their left, where the Saxon troops on the Weimar road were cut off by Ney’s first infantry division and part of Augereau’s corps. Hohenlohn moved all of his remaining reserves into the front line, leaving only Tauenzien’s division out of the line.

By 12.30 another 42,000 French troops had arrived on the field – Soult and Ney’s main infantry bodies and Murat’s cavalry. The French had now managed to concentrate 96,000 men on the battlefield. Napoleon was now able to plan for his own major attack, which was to take place all along the line. On the left Augereau was to attack the Saxons in the ‘snail’ pass. On the right Saint-Hilaire, supported by two divisions from IV Corps, was to attack Holtzendorff’s infantry, still lurking on the northern edge of the battle. Once the two flank attacks were well underway Lannes (V Corps) and Ney (VI Corps) were to attack in the centre. Once a gap had been created Murat’s cavalry was to attack and get into the Prussian rear.

Augereau was already engaged on the French left and St. Hilaire was engaged by 1am. The main attack then began. After some resistance Hohenlohe was forced to order his line to retreat back towards Gross Romstedt and Klein Romstedt. This was the moment that the French had been waiting for. Lannes managed to bring his artillery up and bombarded the retreating Prussians. When Murat’s cavalry attacked the Prussian line began to dissolve and the Prussians were soon fleeing from the field. Part of the army headed west towards Weimar while others attempted to escape to the north. In both cases the French pursuit wasn’t quite as effective as they had hoped. In the west a single Saxon grenadier battalion under Colonel Winkel formed a square and retreated in good order, slowing the French. In the north Tauenzien’s division, which had been resting after playing a major part in the early fighting, also managed to hold up the French for some time. By 2.30pm the main part of the battle was over.

The troops fleeing to the west soon ran into Rüchel’s corps, advancing east from Weimar. He had received the order to join Hohenhole at 9am, and had actually advanced at a decent pace. After marching for an hour he stopped to move from his marching formation into a fighting formation, a move that took another hour. During this period he received a message from Hohenhole informing him that all was going well at Jena. He resumed his advance at 11am, and moved three miles nearer to the battlefield by noon. At this point he received the first indications that Hohenhole was in trouble. He reached Kappellendorf, just to the west of the battlefield at 1pm, and was ready to enter the battle by 1.30pm. Soon after this Hohenhole, who had been retreating with the Saxons, reached Rüchel and took command of his army. He then led this fresh force of 15,000 men east towards Gross Romstedt.

As these Prussian reinforcements approached that village they ran into Lannes’ pursuing French cavalry. Lannes was forced to stop and wait for reinforcements, but the delay didn’t last for long. Saint-Hilaire’s division arrived on his right flank, turned the Prussian’s left and forced Rüchel’s command to retreat. By around 3pm Rüchel’s force had lost all cohesion and had joined the general Prussian retreat.

Aftermath and Conclusion

Murat’s cavalry wasn’t able to begin a full scale pursuit by 4pm. He reached Weimar one hour later, but by then darkness was getting close, and the immediate pursuit halted. The same happened in the north. Even so the Prussians had suffered a crushing defeat, losing 11,000 dead and wounded and 15,000 prisoners, nearly half of the total Prussian force engaged at Jena. The French lost 5,000 men.

That evening Napoleon was shocked to discover that he hadn’t been fighting the main Prussian force after all. Captain Tobriant from Davoüt’s staff arrived at Napoleon’s camp with the news that his master had just fought and defeated the main Prussian army at Auerstädt, fifteen miles to the north.

Over the next few weeks Napoleon harassed the retreating Prussian army, never letting it stop to regroup. Bernadotte went some way towards restoring his reputation during the pursuit. He defeated the Prussian reserves at Halle on 17 October, and was one of three corps to cross the Elbe by the morning of 22 October. Elsewhere large numbers of Prussians were captured, fortresses surrendered after little or no resistances (Magdeburg held out until 11 November). Davout led the victorious entry into Berlin on 25 October. On 28 October Hohenlohe, with the main remaining force, surrendered to Murat. Blücher was the last of the main commanders to surrender, on 6 November, after failing to find safety at Lübeck.

In just over a month Napoleon had destroyed the military might of Prussia, but the war was not over. King Frederick William escaped into the Prussian occupied part of Poland and found safety with the Tsar. Napoleon prepared to turn east for his first invasion of Poland and two costly campaigns that would last into 1807.

Prev Post

Battle of Ulm

Next Post

Battle of Aspern-Essling

Mail Icon


Get Every Weekly Update & Insights

Leave a Comment