SABRES IN THE SNOW: MURAT CHARGES TO GLORY AT EYLAU, 1807!
Lhéritier was just 34 in 1806 when he received his promotion to Colonelcy:
The next year saw the outbreak of the War of the Fourth Coalition, which opposed France to Prussia and Russia. On 5 October 1806, Lhéritier was promoted to Colonel and given the command of the 10th Cuirassiers, a prestigious heavy cavalry regiment, formerly called Royal Cravates during the Ancien Régime, and which traced its origins back to the reign of Louis XIII. The regiment was a part of Marie Adrien François Guiton's 2nd Brigade of General d'Hautpoul's 2nd Heavy Cavalry Division. The division saw no major action during the 1806 campaign, but was heavily engaged at the Battle of Eylau on 8 February 1807. There, Colonel Lhéritier led his cuirassiers during Marshal Murat's famous cavalry charge. Lhéritier was wounded at his right hand when his horse was killed under him, but was soon back in the saddle and took off again at the head of his regiment in another charge.
His senior commander, General d'Hautpoul, was fatally wounded during his heroic charge at Eylau. The 10th Cuirassiers took little part in the fighting that followed that battle.
The Battle of Eylau or Battle of Preussisch-Eylau.
Held on the 7 and 8 February 1807, was a bloody and inconclusive battle between Napoleon's Grande Armée and the Imperial Russian Army under the command of Levin August von Bennigsen near the town of Preussisch Eylau in East Prussia. Late in the battle, the Russians received timely reinforcements from a Prussian division of von L'Estocq. After 1945 the town was renamed Bagrationovsk as a part of Kaliningrad Oblast, Russia. The engagement was fought during the War of the Fourth Coalition, part of the Napoleonic Wars.
Murat’s Famous Charge
Napoleon now summoned Marshal Murat, his brother-in-law and the dashing commander of his Reserve Cavalry Corps. Pointing to the oncoming Russians, he asked, “Will you let those men devour us”?
Murat immediately whirled about, galloping off to join his Corps, waiting to the rear. He hastily gathered them together, marshaling the regiments into one massive column. Each squadron drew-up behind the other, every trooper knee-to-knee. 10,700 superbly mounted cavalry: 4 regiments of armored cuirassiers to the front, followed by regiments of dragoons, hussars, and chasseurs.
Murat’s Reserve Cavalry Corps, 10,700 strong, charges forward in a massive column, into the oncoming Russian infantry. Led by the iron-clad cuirassiers, they his the enemy like a battering ram!
At 11:45, wielding only his riding-whip, Murat’s led his regiments forward, a massive battering ram of men and horses. Walk turned into trot, trot to canter, canter broke into furious gallop!
Cresting the edge of the plateau on the French side of the valley, the hitherto triumphant Russian infantry were greeted by the thunder of 42,800 hooves as a torrent of French cavalry bore down upon them. The cuirassiers, at the head of the column, smashed into the staggering Russian regiments. As Captain Parquin of the Imperial Guard so eloquently observed, “the brave phalanx of infantry was soon leveled to the earth like a wheat-field swept by a hurricane”!
Murat charges at the head of the lead squadrons of cuirassiers, armed only with his riding crop!
Unchecked, the French cavalry swept into the valley, cutting down the fleeing survivors and scattering the prowling Cossacks like chaff before a hurricane. Breaking into two columns, one part wheeled to the right, smashing into and routing the Russian cavalry harassing Friant’s advancing vanguard, before rejoining their comrades. The main thrust followed Murat up the slope to the Russian side of the valley. Bursting out of the blinding snow, they overran the Russian artillery batteries that had so punished Augereau’s Corps. Sabering the hapless gunners and spiking their guns, Murat’s cavaliers exacted a bloody vengeance!
Galloping onward, the cavalry hit the unprepared ranks of infantry that comprised the Russian second line. As Marbot describes, “the terrible weight of this mass broke the Russian center, upon which it charged with the sabre, and threw it into complete disorder.” Here, the swirling snow and poor visibility that had caused Augereau so much mischief worked in Murat’s favor. Many Russian regiments were surprised as the French appeared out of the blizzard, and were ridden down before they could form squares. In other cases, hastily forming squares were shattered before they could set themselves to repel the charge.
Murat’s cavalry now found itself in the heart of the Russian army. While they had torn through the first two lines, they were now in hazardous position: between the reforming survivors of their charge behind, and Bennigsen’s final reserves of cavalry and infantry to their front. These latter now began firing upon them with musketry and cannon. Murat’s horsemen were in an untenable position, with their path of retreat perilous.
Send in the Guard Cavalry
Perhaps sensing their predicament, Napoleon committed his own Guard Cavalry under Marshal Bessières, to cover their withdraw.
Led by Lepic’s magnificent Grenadiers à Cheval, visually striking in their tall bearskin shakos, and followed by the Emperor’s Guard Light Cavalry, the Chasseurs à Cheval (including the squadron of Egyptian Mameluks) these 2,000 elite cavalry plunged forward into the valley. Furiously laying about them with sword, they opened a blood-stained passage through which Murat’s weary horsemen could safely travel.
As Murat’s retreating riders streamed past the Guard cavalry formed a barrier between them and the Russian reserve. The Russians advanced cautiously; and as they approached the ranks of the Guards, a Russian officer called upon them to surrender.
“Look at these faces,” the redoubtable Lepic demanded, “and see if they mean to surrender!” With that he and his men wheeled about, and cut their way back to freedom.
Seeing the wounded Lepic after the battle, Napoleon went to him and said: “I thought you had been captured, general Lepic. I was feeling deeply sorrowful about it.” Lepic replied: “Sire, you will only ever hear of my death.” That evening, Lepic received 50,000 francs, which he immediately distributed to his men. Five days later, he would be promoted to general. (He continue to serve with gallantry throughout the Napoleonic Wars. Retiring in 1814, Lepic was awarded by the returned Bourbon king, Louis XVIII with the title of Count.)
The charge of Murat’s cavalry at Eylau was not only a seminal moment in the battle; it was the finest moment in the history of Napoleon’s cavalry.
“Napoleon had good cause to be grateful to his cavalry arm, which now came indisputably into its own as a finely tempered and practically irresistible battle weapon”.
The surgeon-in-chief of Napoleon's Grand Army, Baron Dominique-Jean Larrey, served the wounded with the flesh of young horses as soup and bœuf à la mode. The good results encouraged him to promote the consumption of horse meat in France