Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Book Review: Napoleon's Campaign in Prussia, 1806 - F. Loraine Petre

Murat leads the cavalry at Jena, 1806. A cropped version of which adorns my edition.

One thing after another has kept me from blogging regularly for what feels like aeons now. A couple of examples: my father's major heart surgery (he finally got home from hospital yesterday, bless him), and my wife and I moving home, after nigh on a decade in our previous domicile.

So, finally... setting aside such small matters... let's get back to the really important stuff... little soldiers, military history, and all that jazz!

I actually made a model today, the first in ages. I'll try and post about that tomorrow. Posting is tricky. We don't have internet as such. I'm just doing this on my iPhone, and having investigated tethering my iPad via my iPhone, in Chrome on the iPad. 

I typed this entire article out once already, only to have the 'blogger' app on my iPad apparently void it. Grrrr...!!!

Anyroad, to business: whilst minor occurrences such as brushes with death and relocation of habitation have intruded, I've managed to keep an occasional hand in, or rather eye on, the reading front. A recent whimsical purchase of Andrew Roberts' concise and highly enjoyable Waterloo, Napoleon's Final Gamble (must finish my post on that to!) was a welcome way to return to Napoleonic pastures.

Not just any old iron: Marshal Davout's victory at Auerstadt was arguably even  more impressive than Napoleeon's at Jena.

Such was the pleasure that reading that little book afforded, that I climbed our Eiger of boxed up books, and delved into cardboard caverns, until I successfully excavated a small treasure trove of as yet unread Napoleonic books. 

I was sorely tempted to travel to Shedfiled, er... Sheffield (predictive text!), to splash yet more cash on expanding my Napoleonic library, at the recent Triples weekender. But, as I contemplated the dearth of ready funds, and the lengthy journey - and after several weeks of moving tons of crap in vans and cars, plus hospital visits - I opted instead to unearth and read stuff from the 'pending' pile. 

I really wanted to resume reading David Chandler's Campaigns of Napoleon, but feeling rather daunted by the Tolkienian dimensions of that particular literary Oddysey, I plumped instead for one of F. Loraine Petre's Napoleonic titles. [1]

The best pic I could find online of the edition I have.

Francis Loraine Petre hardly sounds English, but he was. His professional life was chiefly occupied by a long stint in the civil service in India. But he's best remembered now for his Napoleonic works, written after his return to Blighty. This is the first of his five books that I've read. But it moist curtainly won't be the last!

Written and published around a century after the events described, I read it in an Arms & Armour Press edition, of 1972 (as pictured above). Although there is something quaintly antiquated about some of his prose, the book as a whole is admirably clear and concise, perhaps benefitting from the tidy-mindedness of an efficient administrator? Certainly it's very well laid out, structurally.

One of the smaller maps in the book, this one depicting Prenzlau.

The text in this edition is enriched by two sections of illustrative plates, including panoramic battlefield photos, taken in situ by the author, and several maps. Some of these latter are ordinary illustrative maps, such as those of Prenzlau (above) and Stettin. But others - three in total - are larger fold-out affairs.

As beautiful and evocative as these larger maps are, they aren't easy to use in conjunction with the text, chiefly by dint of being hard to read. This is most especially the case with the otherwise gorgeous map of the two main battlefields, of Jena and Auerstadt.

Petre starts the book by setting out the causes of the conflict, chiefly citing duplicitous vacillation on the part of King Frederick William III of Prussia, and offended pride and vaulting ambition on the part of Napoleon.

Rather as with Austria in 1809, the Prussians, under their rather weak-willed ruler, are moved towards war by a hawkish faction, headed in part by the king's beautiful but ill-informed wife,  when neither the country nor the army are ready. France on the other hand is riding high, very much in the ascendant as the victors of Austerlitz, with Napoleon at the peak of his not inconsiderable powers.

Vernet's famous painting of Napoleon at Jena, glaring at an enthusiasticly vocal member of his Imperial Guard.

When Petre turns his attention to the contending armies the story is much the same. France has a vigorous modern army, with high morale, led by younger men, whilst Prussia, still looking back to the former glories of Frederick the Great, fields an army of brutalised peasants, lorded over by aristocratic officers, and lead by a geriatric staff. 

In stark contrast to the concentration of power, command and skill in the person of Napoleon, the Prussian command structure is, like their parade-ground movements in the field, ponderous and indecisive. We also given descriptions if the difference in arms and organisation, and only in their cavalry did the Prussians give Napoleon cause for concern.

Having  looked at the background to the campaign, and the forces with which it will be fought, Petre turns next to the plans of the two contending parties. 

Once again Prussia fares ill in the comparison. Whilst Napoleon singlemindedly pursues broad goals with a flexible approach, the Austrians constantly dither and argue, often in committee, dropping one plan in favour of another, and losing sight of the bigger picture by getting bogged down in trivial details. All of this hardly bodes well!

Bernadotte, whose hissy fit [2] could've cost Davout his victory at Auerstadt.

So, it's not too surprising, when Petre's narrative moves on to the campaign itself, to find the French moving quickly and decisively, and consistently out-thinking and out-marching the Prussians. 

Petre is no uncritical Boneyphile, however, and he notes the many instances when Napoleon is far from omniscient. But the key thing is that Bonaparte's consistently quick witted, flexible, and, for all his energy and optimism, also both cautious and thorough.

The first half of the book climaxes in the twin engagements of Jena and Auerstadt. At the former Napoleon succeeds - despite fighting what would turn out to be the decisive battles two days earlier than planned - in concentrating a superior force against the Prussian right wing, under Hohenlohe and von Ruchel. Although the battle has several swings of fortune, ultimately Bonaparte inflicts a resounding defeat on his adversaries, leaving the shattered Prussian army fleeing the field in tatters. 

Napoleon thought he was facing the forward elements of the main Prussian army. But it was actually Davout, the 'Iron Marshal', who in fact encountered the main Prussian body, off to Napoleon's right around Hassenhausen, at the battle remembered as Auerstadt. With great tenacity and presence of mind, and despite the non-appearance of Bernadotte, Davout defeated a force far larger than his own.

Knötel's depiction of the death of Prussia's Prince Louis Ferdinand, at Saalfeld. [3]

Petre, whose narrative is very much an upper echelon view, from 'the Gods', so to speak next discusses the strategies and tactics in this opening 'blitzkrieg' phase of the war. Napoleon's [name?] strategy is noted as far more effective than the Prussian dispersal of forces. 

The next phase of the war has an entirely different character, which finds Napoleon's forces spreading out in pursuit of the beleaguered Prussians. Petre teases out the various strands of this potentially confusing follow up to the double-whammy of Jena-Auerstadt with great aplomb, providing a clear picture, which (unlike some of the maps) is pretty easy to follow. Although it must be admitted that following the endless troop movements is quite tricky, unless you have your Esposito and Elting close at hand (I didn't!).

Napoleon in Berlin (Knötel).

Unlike some modern writers, who feel that mind-numbing thoroughness is mandatory, where there's little of much interest to be said, Petre, very commendably, says little. This is especially true in the latter stages of this conflict. He does, however, cover all the interesting stuff with proper thoroughness, and the book remains engaging and enjoyable from start to finish. That Prussia survived this debacle is quite something!

I loved this book. It's not perfect - the hyper-detailed troop movement info, combined with difficult to read (if admittedly very beautiful) maps, is sometimes hard to follow, and the absence of front line or ground level sources makes for a notable contrast with the best of modern writing - but it's still a gripping and informative read.


[1] Petre's Napoleonic  works are:
Napoleon's Campaign in Poland, 1806–1807
Napoleon's Conquest of Prussia 1806–1807
Napoleon & the Archduke Charles 1809
Napoleon's Last Campaign in Germany 1813
Napoleon at Bay 1814

[2] Bernadotte was picqued at his Corps not taking precedence over Davout's, and hung back pointedly at the outset of the campaign. Later on he made up for this lacklustre performance  with a more vigorous prosecution of the pursuit of the defeated Prussians. It was his diplomatic handling of Swedsh prisoners in this campaign that would reap sch long-term dividends for the clan Benadotte, who rule Sweden to this day! 

[3] Prince Louis Ferdinand was one of the foremost Prussian hawks. His death in the first engagement of the war was a heavy blow to Prussian morale. Apparently he was a gifted pianist and composer; his sad fate suggests he should've stuck to the latter, and avoided the military!

[4] David Chandler notes in his more contemporary forward that most modern historians would add the piquant details of memoirs from a broader range of participants, inc. the rank and file 'groundlings'

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