With Austria withdrawn from the war with Napoleon, the Prussian king, Frederick-Wilhelm II, began to feel increasingly threatened by encroaching French armies and ideas that had the potential of weakening the stranglehold of the Ancien Regime of the people of Prussia.
Frederick-Wilhelm offered Napoleon an ultimatum, threatening to unleash the best-trained military in the world upon France if the latter did not withdraw its forces beyond the Rhine.
Instead of responding, Napoleon, knowing that to surrender all he had worked to earn was not an option, marched the Grande Armée into Prussia and overran several enemy garrisons prior to coming into contact with the main enemy force. “The overconfident Prussian army sang as it marched to total destruction at the battles of Jena and Auerstadt (October 14, 1806), and Napoleon entered Berlin in triumph.” (Encyclopedia of World Biography, 309).
Napoleon’s maneuverability and the devotion of his troops outweighed the rigidity and inflexibility of Prussian military discipline. Subsequently, all the major Prussian armies and fortress garrisons surrendered without firing a shot. During one occasion, Napoleon instructed Marshal Murat on the matter of the newest batch of prisoners. “Take away their guns!” he spoke. “They have twice as many as we do!”
Yet the campaign did not end once Prussia signed armistice and consented to an alliance with France. Napoleon realized that Poland, its people long oppressed, censored, and exploited by the Russian nobility, yearned for an independent existence and a national identity in addition to the reformist changes that had recently occurred in France.
While the Russian military under General Bennigsen amassed at the border between Poland and Prussia, Napoleon led his forces on to Konigsberg, a wealthy trading port that would serve as his base of operations and a supply point. During the winter of 1806-1807, numerous skirmishes took place, the indecisive Bennigsen withdrawing his forces every time, even when there was a potential for a Russian advantage. On February 8, 1807, the two sides encountered each other at Eylau.
The assaults by Russian grenadiers were commendable, and Napoleon came within a hair of losing his own life when enemy cannon bombarded the cemetery at which he was stationed. However, the French held their positions and, at the end of the day, the Russians withdrew once more, opening the path to Konigsberg.
After resting and replenishing his forces, Napoleon was prepared to begin a full-scale liberation of Poland. At Friedland on June 14, 1807, Bennigsen’s indecisiveness proved fatal to the Russian army. While he dallied, Napoleon “drove the Russians from the field.” (Encyclopedia of World Biography, 309).