Accounts of the Battle of Jena

In the Battle of Jena, fought on October 14, 1806, in what is today Germany, the French army led by Napoleon Bonaparte defeated the Prussian army led by the Prince of Hohenloe in a quick and decisive engagement. Further north, near Auerstädt, French marshal Louis Nicolas Davout dealt a similar blow to the Prussians under the Duke of Brunswick and King Frederick William III. As a result of these victories, Prussia found itself under Napoleon’s control.

Napoleon at the Battle of Jena

Napoleon at the Battle of Jena, by Horace Vernet, 1836

Several of the characters in Napoleon in America were present at the Battle of Jena, including Henri-Gatien Bertrand, Charles Lallemand and Charles de Montholon. Here are two French accounts of the battle.

Captain Coignet on the Battle of Jena

Jean-Roch Coignet, a grenadier in Napoleon’s Imperial Guard, wrote the following.

Very early in the year 1806 we set out for Würzburg, where the Emperor was awaiting us. This is a beautiful city, and there is a magnificent castle; the princes gave Napoleon a grand reception. From there the army corps were sent on to Jena, by forced marches; we reached that city the 13th of October, at ten o’clock in the evening. We passed through the town without being able to see anything of it; there was not a light anywhere; the inhabitants had all deserted it. Absolute silence reigned. On the other side of the city we found ourselves at the foot of a mountain as steep as the roof of a house; this we had to climb, and immediately form battalions on the plateau. We were obliged to grope our way along the edge of the precipice; not one of us could see the other. It was necessary to keep perfect silence, for the enemy was near us. We immediately formed a square, with the Emperor in the middle of the guard. Our artillery came to the foot of this terrible mountain, and not being able to pass over it, the road had to be enlarged and the rocks cut away. The Emperor was there, directing the engineers; he did not leave till the road was finished, and the first piece of cannon, drawn by twelve horses, had passed on in front of him, in absolute silence.

Four pieces at a time were carried up and immediately placed in battery in front of our line. Then the same horses went back to the foot of the mountain to be hitched to others. A good part of the night was employed in this terrible task, and the enemy did not perceive us. The Emperor placed himself in the middle of his square, and allowed them to kindle two or three fires for each company. There were a hundred and twenty of us in each company. Twenty from each company were sent off in search of provisions. We did not have far to go, for from the eminence we could throw a stone into the village. All the houses were deserted, the wretched inhabitants had abandoned their homes. We found everything we needed, especially wine and sugar. There were officers with us to keep order, and in three-quarters of an hour we were on our way back up the mountain, loaded with wine, sugar, copper boilers, and all sorts of provisions. We carried torches to give us light in the cellars, and we found a great deal of sealed wine in the large hotels.

Wood was brought and fires lighted, and wine and sugar put into the boilers. We drank to the health of the King of Prussia all night long, and all the sealed wine was divided among us. There was any amount of it; every grenadier had three bottles, two in his bearskin cap, and one in his pocket. All night long we had warm wine; we carried some to our brave gunners, who were half dead with fatigue, and they were very thankful for it. Their officers were invited to come and drink the warm wine with ours; our moustaches were thoroughly wetted, but we were forbidden to make any noise. Imagine what a punishment it was not to be able to speak or sing! Every one of us had something witty ready to say.

Seeing us all so happy put the Emperor in good spirits. He mounted his horse before day and went the rounds. The darkness was so profound that he was obliged to have a light in order to see his way, and the Prussians, seeing this light moving along their lines, fired on Napoleon. But he went on his way, and returned to his headquarters to order the men to arms.

Day had scarcely broken when the Prussians greeted us (October the 14th) with cannon shots, which passed over our heads. An old Egyptian campaigner said, ‘The Prussians have bad colds, hear them cough. We must send them some sweetened wine.’ The whole army now moved forward without being able to see one step ahead of them. We had to feel our way like blind men, constantly falling up against each other. At the sound of the movement which was going on in front of us, it was considered necessary to call a halt and form up for the attack. Our brave Lannes opened on our left; this was the signal for the whole line, and we could only see each other by the light of our firing. The Emperor ordered us to advance rapidly on their centre. He found it necessary to order us first to moderate our pace and finally to halt. Their line had been pierced, as was that of the Russians at Austerlitz. The accursed fog was a great drawback to us, but our columns continued to advance, and we had room to look around. About ten o’clock the sun came out and lighted up the beautiful plateau. Then we could see in front of us. On our right we saw a handsome carriage drawn by white horses; we were told that it was the Queen of Prussia, who was trying to escape. Napoleon ordered us to halt for an hour, and we heard a terrible firing on our left. The Emperor immediately sent an officer to learn what was going on; he seemed angry, and took snuff frequently as he stamped up and down in front of us. The officer returned and said, ‘Sire, it is Marshal Ney who is fighting desperately, with his grenadiers and light horse, against a body of cavalry.’ He immediately sent forward his cavalry, and the whole army advanced. Lannes and Ney were victorious on the left; the Emperor joined them and recovered his good humour.

Prince Murat came up with his dragoons and cuirassiers; his horses’ tongues were hanging out of their mouths. They brought with them a whole division of Saxons, and it was pitiful to see them, for more than half of these unfortunate fellows were streaming with blood. The Emperor reviewed them, and we gave them all wine, particularly to the wounded, and also to our brave cuirassiers and dragoons. We had a least a thousand bottles of sealed wine still left, and we saved their lives. The Emperor gave them their choice, either to remain with us or to be prisoners, telling them that he was not at war with their sovereign.

After winning this battle, the Emperor left us at Jena; he went on to see the corps of Davout and Bernadotte. (1)

French dragoon at the Battle of Jena

French dragoon with captured Prussian flag at the Battle of Jena-Auerstädt, by Edouard Detaille, 1898

Baron Lejeune’s account of the Battle of Jena

Louis-François Lejeune, an aide-de-camp to Napoleon’s Chief of Staff Marshal Berthier, provided this description of the Battle of Jena.

On the 13th the armies continued to approach each other in order of battle at right angles, and in the evening the plain of Jena appeared to be perfectly encircled with the watchfires of the two or three hundred thousand Prussians who rested in security, confident in their vast numbers. The fires of the French army, on the other hand, hidden by the irregularities of the ground, were scarcely visible, and the apparent distance of the enemy still further encouraged the confidence of the Prussians. The night was fine and calm, and from the heights we occupied on the plateau above the plain of Jena the view of the illuminated camp below was magnificent. We felt as if we were preparing for a brilliant fête on the morrow, and the sentinels on either side chatted together at their outposts without any inclination to fight, as if in time of peace.

On October 14, 1806, just before sunrise a thick fog came on and wrapped the whole district in gloom for several hours. The Emperor wished to turn the darkness to account by delaying the action long enough to allow our reserves and cavalry to come up, but the impatience of our troops led to the outposts opening fire on the enemy about nine o’clock. The whole line followed the movement, emerging through wide openings cleared and tested beforehand under Marshal Lannes.

The Prussians were also anxious to wait till the fog cleared away, but our attack roused them from their inaction, and their whole line also began to manoeuvre, changing front and marching upon Jena on their left. About eleven o.clock we could see their infantry advancing and deploying with precision, whilst their artillery arrived at a gallop at the head of an immense body of cavalry. When the two armies, marching towards each other, were nearly within musket shot, the 800 Prussian and French cannon simultaneously opened fire and exchanged salvoes. The thunder of the terrible discharge dispersed the fog, and soon nothing intercepted the rays of the sun but the smoke, which reproduced above the heads of the combatants the ranks in which they stood.

The whole army then engaged, and for some time the struggle was indecisive ; but the Emperor, hearing that Marshal Ney and a portion of Murat’s cavalry had come up, ordered a general attack. The shock was terrible. The Prussian cavalry in their furious charge shattered themselves upon our bayonets, and our grape shot and cavalry completed their destruction. The Prussian divisions were mingled in a confused mass, in which every ball from our guns struck down some hundred victims, whilst the forces of the enemy were divided.

General Rüchel fled towards our left wing, and the King of Prussia turned towards Magdeburg.

The fall of night put an end to the fighting, but not to the pursuit of fugitives, and the victories of Jena  and of Auerstädt, which Marshal Davout won the same day, left in our hands 200 flags with the black eagle, more than 40,000 prisoners, 500 pieces of artillery, with the baggage, pontoon trains, and stores of the Prussians, who left 30,000 dead upon the field, with an immense number of wounded. (2)

Napoleon’s greatest victory

The Battle of Jena is sometimes called Napoleon’s greatest victory. The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a professor at the University of Jena, saw Napoleon riding out to inspect the French positions the day before the battle and wrote to a friend:

It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it. (3)

Austrian foreign minister Clemens von Metternich thought that Napoleon reached the peak of his power at Jena.

If, instead of the destruction of Prussia, he had limited his ambition to the weakening of that power, and had then annexed it to the Confederation of the Rhine, the enormous edifice which he had succeeded in erecting would have gained a foundation of strength and solidity which the Peace of Tilsit did not gain for it. (4)

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  1. Jean-Roch Coignet, The Note-Books of Captain Coignet, Soldier of the Empire, edited by Jean Fortescue (New York, 1929), pp. 131-134.
  2. Louis-François Lejeune, Memoirs of Baron Lejeune, translated by Mrs. Arthur Bell, Vol. I (London, 1897), pp. 36-37.
  3. Joseph McCarney, Routledge Philosophy GuideBook to Hegel on History (London, 2000), p. 2.
  4. Clemens von Metternich, The Autobiography, 1773-1815 (Welwyn Garden City, 2004), pp. 68-69.

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We were obliged to grope our way along the edge of the precipice; not one of us could see the other. It was necessary to keep perfect silence, for the enemy was near us.

Jean-Roch Coignet