Chapter 5

Latvia – a world away

In March 1812, France and Prussia signed the Treaty of Paris, in which Prussia was to furnish a corps of 14,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, 2,000 gunners and 60 guns to furnish a corps of 14,000 infantry, 4,000 cavalry, 2,000 gunners and 60 guns to act with the left flank guard up in Latvia and to take the Baltic port of Riga.

The Prussian king was more or less forced to join Napoleon; if he had sided with Russia, his country - and the House of Hohenzollern - would have been destroyed. Prussia was still partially under French occupation and infested with French spies; the surrounding states were awash with troops; the choice was simple. Even if the unbelievable happened, and Napoleon were to be defeated, Friedrich Wilhelm could always expect sympathetic treatment from Alexander.

This move, dictated by sheer necessity, was too much for about thirty senior officers of the Prussian army. Scharnhorst, Gneisenau, Boyen and Clausewitz were among those who left rather than soldier alongside the hated French. Yorck was only persuaded to take part in the expedition by a most persuasive and flattering letter from the king, in his own handwriting, promising rich rewards for his alliegance.

On 9 March General von Grawert was appointed to command the Prussian corps, with General von Yorck as his second-in-command. Napoleon had insisted that Blücher be removed from his command and would not countenance his employment in the expedition. Early in the campaign von Grawert fell ill and von Yorck took command.

Johann David Ludwig von Yorck,

Commander of the Prussian Corps

Born on 26 September 1759 in Potsdam to David Jonathan von Yorck, a captain in a grenadier battalion, Yorck entered military service on 1 December 1772 as an officer cadet. In January 1780 he was cashiered for insubordination to a captain whom he accused of looting and was sentenced to one year’s fortress arrest in Friedrichsburg. In June 1781 he entered the Dutch service, and from 1783-84 he served together with the French Admiral Suffren against the British at the Cape of Good Hope and in the East Indies. In 1786 he returned to Berlin and asked Frederic the Great to reinstate him in the Prussian army. The king noted on his letter of application: ‘At his own admission, he served in the French fleet under Admiral Suffren. He may be familiar with naval service, but that is no reason to suppose that he would understand land warfare in one of my newly raised regiments.’ Next day, Frederic noted: ‘After his last service I would be silly to employ him in the infantry; that would be just like a cook wanting to be a dancing master.’

Yorck persuaded the new king, Freidrich Wilhelm II, to take him back into Prussian service in 1787. He proved to be an excellent regimental officer. In November 1799 he became the commander of the Feldjaeger Regiment, which he found in a neglected state; the officers were brawling drunks and gamblers. The men were indisciplined and spent their time poaching. Yorck improved matters and reaped the king’s praise at the 1800 army review. On 11 June 1800 he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel.

In the war of 1806 Yorck was in the Duke of Weimar’s corps; after the lost battle of Jena he commanded the rearguard and marched through the Harz mountains to join Blücher’s corps. He was wounded and captured at Lübeck. Most of his Jaegers evaded capture and rejoined the colours; they were an example to the entire army. Yorck was exchanged in January 1807 but was still sick from his wound. The defeat of 1806 had hardened and embittered him; he was known as ‘the man carved from iron’. He was awarded the Pour le Mérite in 1807.

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Prussian General von Yorck, commander of the Prussian contingent in Latvia in 1812. He was to conclude an armistice with the Russians on 31 December of that year, which saved the Prussians many casualties and gave them a kernel of battle-hardened troops for the 1813 campaign. It also forced the hand of his king, Friedrich Wilhelm III, to come over to the allied side.

In November 1811 Yorck was appointed Governor General of Prussia and prepared plans to resist a British invasion. Yorck hated the French and took steps to move all state property out of their clutches. During the campaign in Russia in 1812, Major von Wrangel - ADC to king Friedrich Wilhelm III - was sent by the king as special attaché to General von Grawert, the first commander of the Prussian corps in the invasion. He carried the following verbal orders from the king:

1. Avoid all bloodshed as far as the honour of the troops will allow.

2. In the case of a general withdrawal, part from the French and concentrate the Prussian corps in Graudenz without letting either French or Russians into the fortress.

3. Await further orders from the king there.

When von Wrangel reached the HQ of the Prussian corps in the field Yorck had assumed command, so he delivered his message to him, which must have had great influence on Yorck’s conduct in concluding the Convention of Tauroggen with the Russians in December 1812.

From 1813 to 1815 von Yorck commanded the I Corps. Before he left Berlin on 27 March 1813, he attended church service and, kneeling before the altar, said: ‘From this moment on, none of us now owns his own life, none of us must count on seeing the end of the war, everyone must be ready and willing to give his life for king and fatherland. Now we go off to war. I swear, an unhappy fatherland will never see me again!’

Yorck was the first to be decorated with the Iron Cross (II Class). At Lützen on 2 May, as he led his corps past the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm asked him: ‘Where’s the Iron Cross I gave you?’ Yorck responded: ‘Your Majesty, I won’t wear it until those I recommended for it get theirs.’ ‘You recommended a lot,’ said the king. ‘Only those who deserved it for bravery!’ retorted Yorck. For his efforts in the 1813 campaign, when he was placed under Blücher’s command, Yorck was ennobled as GrafYorck von Wartenburg. But his greatest test was yet to come. On 16 October von Yorck’s I Corps fought and won the battle of Moeckern, outside Leipzig. For this he received the Russian Order of St George 1st Class. On 8 December he was promoted to General of Infantry.

In the 1814 campaign von Yorck fought at Chalons, Montmirail (he was rightly criticised for not joining the fight soon enough), Laon, where he had a blazing row with Gneisenau because the latter forbade him to exploit his initial surprise, and Paris. He was awarded the Grand Cross to the Iron Cross. On 30 May he was in the delegation of the allied monarchs, which went to London.

In April 1815 von Yorck was given command of V Corps, but the war was over before he reached the front. His eldest son was killed at Versailles on 1 July 1815. He retired on 26 December 1815 and died on 4 October 1833 in Klein-Oels, Silesia.

The Emperor further directed that the Prussians be incorporated into Macdonald’s X Corps. Part of the Prussian contingent (three battalions, a troop of dragoons and a battery of artillery) were detached to Memel and a flotilla of six gunboats, with Prussian crews, but under French command, was also stationed there. French General of Engineers, Baron Jacques-David Campredon, commanded the town initially. He later joined Macdonald to command the engineering operations of the siege of Riga.

When X Corps moved forward on Russia on 16 June, the 1st Combined Prussian Hussars were detached to the 7th Division, which had no cavalry of its own.

Etienne-Jacques-Joseph-Alexandre Macdonald, Duc de Tarente, Commander X Corps

Born on 17 November 1765 in Sedan (Ardennes), the son of a Scottish Jacobite, Macdonald entered military service in 1784 in the Legion Irlandaise. He had a long and active career, seeing action and being promoted by degrees. He retired from his position asGeneral de Division commanding the 3rd Division of the Armée du Nord in Zeeland due to ill health in October 1795, but later returned to command the division. In November 1798 he became Governor of Rome and commander of the 1st Division of the Armée de Rome. He was victorious at Faventino, Civita Castellana and Otricoli; and at the taking of Calvi. He assaulted Capua without success on 3 January 1799 and was later removed from command due to differences with Championnet.

Throughout 1799 Macdonald saw further action, but, having been sent on sick leave in July, he was relieved of his duties on 13 November. In April 1801 he was appointed ambassador to Denmark until the end of January 1802. He then fell into disfavour with Napoleon in 1804 for his defence of Moreau, who was implicated in a plot to kill the Emperor.

Macdonald went into the service of the Kingdom of Naples in February 1807, a post he held for almost two years, until transferred to the Armée d’Italie as commander of the V Corps. On 6 July 1809 he broke the Austrian centre in the battle of Wagram. For this he was made marshal six days later, although he received his baton on the field on the day of the battle. On 14 August 1809 he was created Grande Aigle of the Legion d’Honneur annd next day he received an annuity of 60,000 francs from Naples. On 9 December 1809 Macdonald was created Duc de Tarente.

On 3 June 1812, Macdonald was appointed to command X Corps in Russia. He crossed the Niemen on 24 June and operated against Riga together with the Prussian corps until 30 December, when Yorck’s Prussian corps reached a separate peace with the Russians. This, and the destruction of the Grande Armée, forced him to withdraw south-west. He reached Koenigsberg on 3 January 1813 and Danzig seven days later. Here he handed over the X Corps to General Rapp and was placed à la suite of the imperial general staff.

He went on to command the right wing of the army at Lützen and at Bautzen, before being appointed commander of the Armée de la Bober and being heavily defeated at the Katzbach by Blücher. He fought at Wachau on 16 October and at Leipzig two days later; escaping capture by swimming the River Elster

In the 1814 campaign he fought in various actions and was charged by Napoleon, together with Ney and Caulaincourt, with negotiating peace with the allied monarchs on 4 April. On 6 May he became a member of the council of war under Louis XVIII and on 4 June he was created a Peer of France.

As commander of the Armée du Gard Macdonald accompanied Louis XVIII to the Belgian frontier in 1815, then returned to Paris to serve as a grenadier in the National Guard. After Napoleon’s second abdication he was created Grande Chancelier of the Legion d’Honneur. In September 1815 he became Minister of State and a member of the privy council. Further honours followed: the Grand Cross of the Order of St Louis in January 1816 and Knight Commander of the Order of St Esprit in 1820. Due to his frankness in dealing with the king, Louis dubbed him ‘His Outspokenness’. Macdonald was bald in 1812 and very embarrassed about it; hence his pleasure at the arrival of his wig. He died on 25 September 1840 in the castle of Courcelles-le-Roi (Loiret).

The effects of Napoleon’s mad invasion were to be seen even in early May, as Lieutenant Julius Hartwich of the Prussian Leib-Infanterie-Regiment reported from the Marienburg-Dirschau area on the Vistula on 3 May:

We had now reached the Military Road - a concept of horror at this time - along which the army had been advancing for some weeks. The banks of the Vistula had been like the promised land; but what a state they were now in! Robbed bare, stripped of supplies, the cattle laying dead all over the place. For the supply trains and artillery parks, which passed through on the soft, dirt roads, demanded draught animals from the farmers, to replace their own starving nags that could no longer pull their loads. The first ones took all the horses; when all of these were gone, they took cows and even calves, which were rapidly driven to death. So the cadavers littered the sides of the road, in which the vehicles remained, stuck up to their axles in mud, while the drivers quartered themselves on the unfortunate peasants. The scenes of devastation were indescribable.

Along the road were splendid manor farms, with gilded domes on the gables, over two or three floors of windows, glittering in the sun. These were the homes of the old Prussian colonists, the Mennonites, whom Frederick the Great had urged to settle these once-empty lands.

In Czarlin were still 20 men and 70 horses from the artillery train of the Prince of Eckmuhl.1

Apart from the mayor’s house, there were only seven workers’ cottages in the place. In order to give the men of the regiment straw for their bivouacs, most of these roofs had been stripped.

The local supplies have already been exhausted; luckily, we get a daily ration of ½ lb of bread, ⅛ Metzen2 peas, ⅛ quart of brandy and, on each third day, a 6 lb loaf. The Administrator here is rich; he hosts us four officers, Dr Khiel from the company, the son of the glass merchant from Brandenburg and the sergeant major, as well as finding a camping site for 75 men.

The Prussians now marched on to cross the River Vistula by the bridge of boats built by the French at Dirschau. Although the distance they had to cover was only two Meilen (15 km) it took eight hours due to the washed-out state of the roads. Dirschau had been entrenched to form an armed bridgehead.

Hartwich continued: ‘On 6th May we marched on through verdant cornfields and over wooded hills, some 20 km to Mühlhausen; we marched together with the 25e French Regiment.’3

On 9 May Hartwich passed Heiligenbeil and two days later the Prussians entered Koenigsberg, where they passed in review before generals von Grawert, von Yorck and von Heister. By 29 May, Hartwich’s regiment was downstream from Tilsit on the lower River Niemen; the weather was fine and he had time to record his impressions of the fisherfolk of the area:

... these fisherfolk are amongst the poorest here. They live under the sky, nine families in all, each family protected only by a canvas sheet stretched diagonally over them. The able men and women go fishing every day and only come back in the evenings. Old folk of both sexes weave nets and care for the dozens of children playing in the sand. Some evenings I went back to their camp and watched them eat supper. They would scatter salt on their slice of bread, then place small, boiled fish on it; then they would take some soup with a large, wooden ladle and drink it. They bartered the bigger fish for thread, bread and their insignificant clothing. It was heart-breaking to see.

Even here, the inevitable effects of the sudden, great increase of population, which this area had to support, were all too soon evident.

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The Georgian General Prince Peter Bagration, commander of the 2nd Russian Army of the West in 1812. Despite being on very poor relations with his commander, Barclay de Tolly, he served loyally under him and extracted his army from the jaws of Napoleon’s trap at the start of the campaign. He was mortally wounded at Borodino on 7 September and is buried on the battlefield.

The hardships were rapidly increased; the prices of all foodstuffs shot up and rationing was introduced. Meat was almost too dear to think of, so we cooked in our billets. Had it not been for the cheap fish, I don’t know what would have become of us.

On 12th June, Marshal Macdonald entered Labiau ... On this day a corps of 20,000 Frenchmen were in the area of Tapiau; they devastated the entire area, because there was no forage for their horses.

On 15th June, Napoleon reviewed 40,000 French (?) troops at Wehlau ... he then went on to Gumbinnen to review all the other French troops.

Our [Prussian] headquarters was in Tilsit. On 22nd June we began to build a bridge of boats over the River Memel, which was not finished until the evening of the 23rd. Marshal Macdonald, Duke of Tarento, was also here. On 28th June we marched for Tauroggen, crossing the Russian border at Kutturen, and went on to Mordel, the first Russian village; we then went on to Tauroggen itself.

This was the first time that I had been in a foreign country in my life; I could not understand the language, and even in the heat of summer, the local people were wearing fur coats and long skirts.

By 1st July we were in Rossiena, a pretty and clean little town of straw-thatched wooden houses. There was also a fine (Fransiscan) abbey, with a tiled roof, in which Marshal Macdonald set up his headquarters. Next day, we discovered a ‘Colonial Shop’ with lots of cheap goods; we bought plenty for our mess kitchen. This was well-advised, as yesterday, we heard that the corps paymaster had no more money with which to pay our wages. We were, however, issued with our usual rations of 1lb of meat, 6oz rice, or 8oz of pearl barley, tobacco, brandy and butter. We have also bought an ox, a sheep and eight chickens, who march with us.

On 7th July we marched on to Telsche, where we built a hutted camp. This was a sizeable Russian town.

On 10th July I was witness to an odd ceremony. In the presence of the local aristocracy, the local councils and our officer corps, the Prince Bishop Zandrowitsch of Samogitie dissolved the oath of loyalty to Russia and the people thus joined the insurrection. The County Councils swore alliegance to Napoleon. As part of this celebration, the County Councils had to provide each officer with his normal rations plus a bottle of wine, a pound of white bread, four ounces of butter, an ounce of coffee, two ounces of sugar and three eggs.

Latvia was being born.

Far off to the north west of the main theatre of operations, Marshal Macdonald’s X Corps (including most of the Prussian contingent) pushed up to blockade the port city of Riga from 24 July to 18 December.

This operation was very much a side-show in this dramatic campaign; the corps consisted of the 7th and 28th (Prussian) Divisions, about 32,500 men in all. There was not yet a siege train available, so no serious attempt would be made to capture the city. Riga was also low on the list of Russian priorities and it took months for the defence forces to gain in quality and quantity. But the Russians did have an advantage; the Royal Navy, under the diplomatic Admiral James Saumarez, escorted convoys of merchantmen into Riga and cooperated with the defence forces in mounting coastal raids behind French lines. Hartwich’s diaries continue:

On 17th July we reached Memel... Next day we crossed the ‘holy’ River Aa, then the force split into two halves; one going to Mitau, the other to Liebau. Each detachment had two guns.

That evening, Liebau was found to be free of the enemy. It is a pretty, rich little town on the Baltic coast, with about 6,000 inhabitants and a fine harbour. Most of the houses are of wood, but very finely decorated. The windows are glazed and the benches in front of the doors are painted with red or green oil paint. The town has five churches and a synagogue. The main church is Lutheran and is sited in the best quarter of the town. It is built in the new style, white, with golden decoration inside. It is the most beautiful church that I have yet seen.

Macdonald’s advance, in contrast to the mad race forward which took place in the central section, was slow, deliberate and cautious. This gave the Russians in Riga time to prepare their defences and to call up and train a force of militia. The discipline of the polyglot 7th Division was so bad and their depredations on the countryside through which they passed so terrible, that Macdonald finally appointed the Intendant of the Prussian division, Staatsrat Ribbentropp, to manage the collection and distribution of rations and forage for the whole corps.

The men carried three days’ rations in their haversacks. This amounted to four pounds of bread, and one each of biscuit and rice. Each company had a ration wagon with five days’ worth of bread and biscuit and the three train companies of the corps carried a further twelve days’ worth. Two days’ worth of forage were also carried.

In great contrast to the heavy and bitter fighting, which took place at Polotzk and in the ‘Moscow corridor’ - and even at times in the southern sector - the fighting around Riga in Latvia was amazingly low-key and the deprivations suffered by the invaders by no means as harsh or prolonged as in the other sectors. Prussian veterans of combats with the Russians explained their low casualties (despite the heavy volumes of hostile musketry) by saying that the Russians often fired from the hip, only rarely putting the musket to the shoulder. Thus, most of the balls went over the enemies’ heads. This harks back to the doctrine of the ‘sainted’ Suvorov; whose favourite saying was: ‘The bayonet is a fine fellow, the bullet is a fool.’

Russian General Essen I commanded the defence forces of Riga and all of Latvia; he was supported by eighteen British and twenty-one Russian gunboats. His chief of staff was Lieutenant Colonel von Tiedemann, who had transferred from Prussian service shortly before the outbreak of war.

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Part of the epic cavalry battle, which preceded the final capture of the Grand Battery at Borodino. Russian cuirassiers clash with the Saxon Garde du Corps.

A strong force of Russians under General Weljaminov was busy scouring the countryside before Riga, gathering up or destroying all the stocks of food and fodder that they could find. On 5 July elements of the Prussians and the 7th Division captured a magazine of supplies and a chest of 9,000 Roubels at Ponawesch. The Russians they surprised here belonged to Weljaminov’s force.

1st clash at Eckau, 19 July

A village 12 km east of Mitau (now Jelgava), 40 km south of Riga in Latvia. Victory of Prussian Colonel von Horn’s 2nd Brigade over General Lœwis’s Russian militia. This was the opening action in Latvia.

The Prussian troops involved were the 3rd and 4th Combined Infantry Regiments, 2nd and 6th Fusilier Battalions, the East Prussian Jaeger Battalion, two squadrons of the 3rd Hussars, two of dragoons, two and a half horse batteries and one and a half foot batteries, some 6,585 men. They lost ten killed, sixty-eight wounded and fifteen missing, as well as 116 horses.

The Russian militia and depot troops - scratch units - were eight battalions, eight squadrons of regular cavalry and a Pulk of Cossacks. They totalled 4,200 infantry, 1,200 cavalry and twelve guns. Losses of killed and wounded were not known; 319 were captured as was a colour (by the dragoons) and three ammunition wagons. They were pushed out of Eckau as darkness fell.

The new tactics of the Prussian army (much greater use of skirmishing and open-order combat) had certainly proved themselves.

This action secured the left flank of the 7th Division and cleared the way for Macdonald to cross the River Duena. On 23 July allied patrols appeared before the walls of Riga; General Essen panicked and set fire to a suburb of the town on the glacis. The strong winds fanned the flames and much of the town was soon destroyed. Damage was estimated at sixteen million Roubels. Essen was sacked.

The first clash at Schlock, 5 August

A coastal village, on an island in the mouth of the River Aa, 18 km west of Riga. A minor Anglo-Russian victory over the Prussians. Russian General Loewis, with part of the Riga garrison (eight battalions and some cavalry) and thirteen British gunboats (with a battalion of infantry on board), against part of the 1st Prussian Brigade (1st Fusilier Battalion, 30 men of the East Prussian Jaeger Battalion and two squadrons of the 3rd Hussars).

The gunboats bombarded the 620 Prussians who fled into a swamp, where they hid all night after losing ten killed and wounded and fifty captured.

The clash at Wolgund, 7 August

A small Latvian village, some 20 km south-west of Riga. A minor Prussian victory (General von Kleist, with the 2nd Brigade) over the Russians of General Loewis.

Prussian units involved were the 3rd Combined Infantry Regiment, three companies of the 6th, the 1st Fusilier Battalion, two squadrons of the 3rd Hussars, two of the 2nd Dragoons and five guns.

General Loewis had eight battalions of militia and grenadier depot troops, 200 cavalry, six guns and six gunboats.

The Russians lost 140 men, the Prussians some sixty-five.

Napoleon demanded more aggressive action of Macdonald and pointed out the possibilities of cooperation with Oudinot at Polotzk, but Macdonald preferred to remain in Latvia, his corps spread out in an arc of about 150 km from Mitau in the west to Jakobstadt on the River Dueina in the east. Perhaps this was a wise decision.

Notes

1

Marshal Davout.

2

1 Metzen = e9781783409587_i0024.jpg of a litre.

3

The 25e Ligne was in Compans’ 5th Division, I Corps.

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