Tuesday, February 08, 2005

On this day in military history....in 1587 and 1807

On this day in military history....in 1587. Mary, Queen of Scots is beheaded for her plot to kill Queen Elizabeth I and now you know why the Scots hate the English. The plot to kill Queen Elizabeth and replace her with Roman Catholic Mary, which is known as the Babington Plot, used encryption to conceal the contents of the messages from Mary to the conspirators. However, due to a counter-intelligence operation run by Sir Francis Walsingham, the conspirators were caught because the courrier of the messages was a double agent and thru one of the first instants of the use of cryptanalysis, the messages were decrypted. All very much James Bond, MI-5, cloak-and-dagger, hush, hush, nudge, nudge, know-what-I-mean stuff.

On this day in military history….in 1807. Napoleon defeats (barely) the Russians at Eylau, Poland. This was the first major set back for Napoleon and his army. After having destroyed the Austrians at Austerlitz (not far from Brno, Czech Republic) in December 1805 and the Prussians at Jena-Auerstedt (near Naumburg, Germany) in October 1806, he had turned his sights on the Russians. With the defeat of the Prussian Army, the Russians had decided that it was best to “run away and live to fight another day” and were retreating towards Russia. This allowed Napoleon’s army to enter Poland virtually unopposed. There Napoleon decided to take up winter quarters and rest his army. Unfortunately, the Russians decided that this was the best time to counterattack, and in January, 1807, started searching for a way to close with and destroy Napoleon’s army. In February, 1807, the two armies were again in close proximity. Due to the bad state of the Polish roads, the winter weather and the ease which Napoleon had dispatched the Prussians at Jena-Auerstedt, the Grande Armée was more dispersed than was Napoleon’s custom. However, the Russians where concentrated at Eylau and were ready to strike. The battle started on the 7th of February. Napoleon was desirous to avoid commencing the battle before the rest of his forces could be brought forward, but things got out of hand and the battle started in earnest when the French advanced forward to take the town of Eylau. The fighting went on into the night of the 7th and continued until the Russian forces pulled back a bit. The next day, as the snowstorms continued, the fighting started back up as Napoleon ordered a frontal assault. That didn’t go as planned and things started looking like Napoleon could go down in quick defeat. To avoid this, he sent his corps reserve (the VII) forward on the Russian left to relieve the pressure on the rest of the line. Unfortunately, due to the snowstorms, the VII corps veered off line and advanced straight into the Russian center where it came under fire from both the French artillery, which was blinded due to the snow storms and the main Russian guns.

The result was that the VII corps was almost wiped out. The Russians took advantage of the situation and attacked the French center. The French center started to give away and things were ripe for a crushing Russian victory when Napoleon decided to commit his cavalry reserve to save the day. This day, the French cavalry performed as was expected and were able to turn the tide of battle along with the timely arrival of French reinforcements. However, the fighting continued on until late into the night and when the Russians finally left the field of battle, the French were too exhausted to pursue. The French had won the battlefield, but suffered enormous losses and had failed to destroy the Russian army.


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