Thursday, February 3, 2011

First Contact

23 July 1813

strategic map

At first light on 23 July 1813 the roads between Magdeburg and Hanover became very busy, with long columns of French military traffic moving east, and Prussian columns moving west. The columns consisted of infantry and artillery, plus miles of supply vehicles. Ahead of each column squadrons of cavalry pushed ahead searching out the enemy

At each town or village cavalry patrols questioned local authorities and searched mail in transit. The arrival of the cavalry prompted masses of civilians to flee, which produced chaos as they met military columns moving in the opposite direction. Each village and cross roads produced havoc as the columns condensed to move through the bottle neck.

It is a six day march from Hanover to Magdeburg, however the nearest French and Prussian corps were much closer than that. Just after midday the first contact of the campaign took place on the high road between Helmstedt and Walbeck.

tactical map

The Prussian cuirassier brigade entered the village of Walbeck at 11am. They had spent the morning screening the advance of 4th Prussian corps from Colbitz. The sympathic villagers informed them that a large body of the enemy were in Helmstedt and the surrounding area.

The brigade commander had orders to locate and observe the enemy, but not to engage in combat. He ordered one squadron to advance with caution along the Helmstedt road. The remainder of the brigade were drawn up in battle formation just west of Walbeck

Ten miles away a squadron of French chasseurs had posted a skirmish line just west of Helmstedt. The commander was the first to spot the cuirassiers, and raced back to the town to report to his brigade commander. The young French light cavalry brigadier occupied the inn, where he questioned the mayor and post officials about enemy activity, surrounded by a group of admiring local girls.

The news caused him great satisfaction. He would have the honour of the first engagement of the campaign. The chasseur brigade was mustered and left Helmstedt in haste.

Outside the village they formed line of battle and moved towards Walbeck. It was clear from their determined advance that they were about to attack. The Prussian commander ordered his forward squadron to fall back on the main brigade. The French continued their advance, and the Prussians retreated by squadron on Walbeck.

During the retreat a small group of cuirassiers were cut off by the faster moving chasseurs. Casualties were light on both sides, but two Prussians were taken prisoner. They confirmed that Walbeck was occupied by General Tauentzien’s 4th Prussian corps.

Aware that to advance any closer to Walbeck would open his brigade to unnecessary casualties, the French commander halted five miles short of Walbeck. He established a skirmish line and sent a messenger to report this important news.

The first contact of the campaign was a hailed as a small French victory, and generally agreed that the young brigadier was a fine example of a French light cavalryman.

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