Napoleon orders the largest cavalry charge in history at Eylau

"Napoleon on the field of Eylau" by Antoine-Jean Gros

Today on February 8th 1807, Napoleon suffered his first major inconclusive battle outcome at Eylau in Russia.

The Battle of Eylau was fought between the French Empire and the Fourth Coalition near modern day Kaliningrad. The two-day battle was bloody and resulted in Napoleon’s first inconclusive outcome. For nearly a decade, Napoleon Bonaparte remained virtually undefeated on the battlefield. The French Emperor had won countless victories against his European rivals and was seemingly invincible to his countrymen and enemies alike. The French Army had decisively beaten the Austrians at Austerlitz and the Prussians at Jena-Auerstedt. Napoleon was in the midst of occupying Prussia and hunting down the remnants of its dismantled army.

In January 1806, Russian General Levin von Bennigsen led a coalition force westward towards Eastern Prussia. Napoleon was surprised by the sudden attack in the dead of winter and marched north to intercept the enemy. The French forces were initially outnumbered on the battlefield so Napoleon ordered a series of stalling moves while his reinforcements were assembling. Next he ordered Marshall Murat to charge against the advancing Russian columns with 10,700 horsemen - one of the largest cavalry charges in history. Murat successfully slashed through the Russian centre, allowing Napoleon to reform his lines.

Both sides continued to receive new reinforcements and the battle raged on through the night. Marshal Ney finally arrived with troops on the left flank, bringing the French Army to numerical parity. After an apparent stalemate, Bennigsen withdrew from the battlefield after severe exhaustion. Napoleon tactically won the battlefield, but strategically allowed the Russians to escape. It must have been a gruesome sight with many wounded soldiers simply freezing to death on the field. The next morning, Marshal Ney famously said "What a massacre! And without result.” Collectively, it’s estimated there were between 30,000 to 50,000 casualties at Eylau.

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