Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gorbenko Is Searching for French Miracle

The little man was in trouble. Nothing had gone his way all morning. He was outmanned and outgunned, and the snowy weather was fouling up visibility. Hours of spontaneous street fighting the previous evening had claimed thousands of his men.

He still tried to make the best of the situation. He stretched out his 45,000-strong formation along a four-kilometer front and employed every cannon at his disposal. His officers were given orders to inflict maximum human casualties on the enemy — whose forces totaled some 75,000 — in the hope that his 30,000 reinforcements from the north and south would arrive in time and complete the encirclement of the enemy.

First, the little man tried harassing the enemy’s right flank to distract his attention away from the left, from whence would come the decisive blow. The plan didn’t work, and a subsequent decision to dispatch two infantry divisions into the fray met with utter disaster: In the ensuing blizzard, his troops lost direction and were mauled. One division walked straight into the enemy’s artillery and was cut down into pieces.

Suddenly the little man, perched on a church belfry that offered the best view of the battlefield, was exposed. His center was alarmingly weak, and the enemy sent a 5,000-man column straight toward the church. Gunfire screamed overhead, and had it not been for the suicidal bravery of his personal escorts, the little man would have been captured.

At this juncture, our hero was in a dire predicament. He needed to pull off a tactical miracle. Could he do it? Of course. He was, after all, Napoleon Bonaparte, the emperor of France and supreme commander of the Grande Arm?e.

At about 11:30 a.m. on Feb. 8, 1807, Napoleon made one of the most extraordinary moves in the history of modern warfare. He sent in the cavalry. Big time. Eighty squadrons of cavalry — more than 10,000 horsemen — charged en masse. The effect was devastating. The mounted warriors slashed through line after line of Russian troops.

The awesome move paid off, and Napoleon evened the balance of forces. In the evening, the Russians retreated, and the French remained. But the cost was tremendous. Estimates vary, but Napoleon suffered as many as 25,000 casualties (one in three) and the Russians 15,000.

Of the more than 60 battles that Napoleon fought, Eylau is arguably the most legendary. I stand on the battlefield now, just 37 kilometers south of Kaliningrad and two north of the Polish border. From under the lindens and beeches, I try to imagine the grassy field ankle deep in human limbs and equine entrails. It is a morbid experience and freezes the blood in my veins. Such a tremendous loss of human life.

I wonder if Leonid Gorbenko, Kaliningrad’s big man, knows about Eylau (now called Bagrationovsk). He was pounded in last week’s elections, receiving only 21 percent of the votes, compared with 37 percent for the winner, Vladimir Yevgorov. The runoff will be held on Nov. 19, and if Gorbenko is to win, he will need a miracle. An Eylau-size miracle. I wonder what tactics he and his cronies are dreaming up. Will he, just like the little man, send in his cavalry to break the adversary? Looking at the disposition of forces, it might be his only hope.

Gary Peach is a freelance journalist based in Kaliningrad.