Generation War: Fact and Fiction – BBC2

Generation War, the German WWII TV drama series, has now finished on the BBC. Its German title is Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter, which translates as Our Fathers, our Mothers. As described in this blog post, it tells the story of five German friends from 1941-45: two brothers, Wilhelm and Friedhelm, who are soldiers, Charlotte, a nurse, Greta, a singer and Viktor, a Jew.

The BBC showed a discussion programme titled Generation War: Fact and Fiction immediately after the final episode. For viewers in the UK it is available on the I-Player until 17 May, and is described by the BBC’s website as below:

Following the final episode of the award-winning German drama Generation War, Martha Kearney is joined by a panel including the programme makers, leading historians and cultural commentators, to examine the historical facts behind the series, the controversy it has caused and why now Germany is confronting the difficult issues of its past.

The members of the discussion panel were: Benjamin Benedict, producer of the series; Prof. David Cesarani, Professor of History at Royal Holloway, London and author of several works on the Holocaust; Prof. Sir Richard Evans, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge University and author of a three-volume history of the Third Reich;  and Dr Eva Hoffman of Kingston University, London, whose Jewish parents survived the Holocaust in hiding in the part of Ukraine that was then Polish.

Other contributions to the programme came from Witold Sobków, the Polish Ambassador to the UK, the scriptwriters of two recent British war dramas, Anthony Horowitz (Foyle’s War) and Sarah Phelps (The Crimson Field) and Anne McElroy, a writer and broadcaster who has written extensively on German history.

Horowitz said that he had ‘no responsibility necessarily to inform, to educate people…but to entertain.’ However, if he were ‘to twist history, to tell lies’ he would be ‘letting down the viewer.’ Phelps asked ‘whose historical accuracy are we recording?’ Different accounts ‘put a different spin on it.’ She thought that a drama could not give the complete picture of what happened to everybody. A dramatist should tell ‘the complete picture of something that’s deeply personal…[Her] obligation… is to send [her] characters there and then ask what it does to them.’

McElroy argued that the unprecedented scale of the Holocaust means that other crimes of  Nazi Germany have been overlooked until recently. She argued that this drama was a way of asking ‘where would you have stood, who do you identify with and what would you have done.’ She added that there will not be living German witnesses who can talk about it for much longer.

Note that the rest of this post includes spoilers.

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Generation War – BBC2

The BBC has recently started to show the German WWII drama series Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter. Its title translates as Our Fathers, our Mothers, but it is called Generation War in the English speaking world. It tells the story of five friends from Berlin from July 1941 until Christmas 1945. The BBC are showing it on the mainstream BBC2: usually subtitled foreign language dramas are shown on the more niche BBC4.

The first episode begins with the five having their last meeting before three of them head off to the Eastern Front: Wilhelm Winter (Volker Bruch) is an infantry officer; his bookish brother Friedhelm (Tom Schilling) is a private in the same unit; and Charlotte (Miriam Stein), a newly qualified nurse known as Charley, at least on the English subtitles, has been assigned to a hospital behind lines.

Greta (Katharina Schüttler) is an aspiring singer, whilst her Jewish boyfriend Viktor (Ludwig Trepte) is a tailor. His father, a WWI veteran, still refers to Germany and its army as ‘we’ despite being stripped of his civil rights and business by the state.

The five promise to meet again at Christmas, which they assume will mean Christmas 1941. If anybody is wondering why I did not give the female characters’ surnames, the answer is that the cast list does not.

Warning! There are spoilers for the first episode in both the reviews linked below.

None of the characters is a Nazi, and the others have remained friends with a Jew despite having been educated almost entirely under the Nazis: I assume that they are meant to be about Trepte’s real age of 25 at the time of filming, although Bruch, Schilling and Schüttler are in their 30s.

Some have criticised this; e.g. the Daily Telegraph review  described it as ‘never less than compelling’ but thought it unlikely that the others would not be ‘openly…associating with Jews’ well after the Nazis came to power. However, the deportation of the German Jews to the East is still a rumour at the start of the series, and they were not required to wear yellow stars until September 1941, about half way through the first episode.

The Telegraph also thought that the characters were too optimistic after two years of war, but in July 1941 the Germans were unbeaten on land and RAF bombing raids were causing only minor damage.

The Arts Desk, an arts review website, notes that:

 its detractors don’t buy the series’ portrayal of five photogenic young German friends as largely innocent victims of Nazism.

The attitudes of the characters may well not be those held by the majority of Germans of their age in 1941. It is a common fault of films set in the past to give the sympathetic characters modern day attitudes and the unsympathetic ones the attitudes of the day.

However, in my view making them seem more like 21st century Germans makes it more powerful when they become complicit in the crimes of the Nazi regime. By the end of the first episode all four of the non-Jewish characters have betrayed their principles.

On the basis of the first of three episodes, this is a well made, compelling and thoughtful drama, which shows how the crimes of the Nazi regime involved ordinary Germans, not just Nazi fanatics. Its main area of controversy is in its treatment of the Poles, which comes in a later episode.

The first episode is available on the BBC I-Player for UK residents until 10:59 pm on 3 May, which is unusual: normally series stay up for a week after the broadcast of the last episode, but the first episode is available only until a week after it was broadcast. The second episode in on BBC2 at 9:30 pm on Saturday 3 May.

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The Great War in Portraits – National Portrait Gallery London

The National Portrait Gallery in London has an exhibition called The Great War in Portraits running until 15 June 2014. The Museum’s website describes the exhibition as:

In viewing the First World War through images of the many individuals involved, The Great War in Portraits looks at the radically different roles, experiences and, ultimately, destinies of those caught up in the conflict.

Setting the scene in 1914, the splendour and formality of portraits of national leaders are contrasted with a press photograph of Gavrilo Princip, the 19-year-old assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The narrative unfolds with power-portraits of commanders Haig, Foch and Hindenburg, asserting  military authority, which are displayed together with dignified pictures of their troops by artists including Orpen, Sickert and Nevinson. Finally, images of heroes and medal-winners are shown alongside the wounded and the fallen, representing  the bitter-sweet nature of a war in which valour and selfless endeavour were qualified by disaster and suffering.

From paintings and drawings to photography and film, the exhibition considers a wide range of visual responses to ‘the war to end all wars’, culminating in the visual violence of Expressionist masterpieces by Beckmann and Kirchner.

The majority of the portraits on show are by British artists of British Empire subjects, but there are some from other countries. There is a clear difference in style between post 1918 paintings of war scenes by British and German artists. The exhibition argues that in Britain, victorious but traumatised, many rejected Modernism in favour of a return to past values. In defeated Germany, however, the old order was rejected, resulting in a move the other way.

The curators were obviously restricted in their choice of portraits because few other than politicians, generals, admirals and VC winners would have had their portrait painted. However, there are also a number of paintings of unnamed ordinary British Empire soldiers made by William Orpen, with the aim of showing the importance of collective endeavour in the war effort.

The War Office did not want paintings of dead British soldiers to be shown, censoring one of dead Tommies by C. R. W. Nevision, ironically titled Paths of Glory. However, it was more relaxed about pictures of the wounded. Public exhibitions of war art in 1918 included paintings by Orpen and Eric Kennington of wounded men and hospital scenes.

After the war a group of artists led by Gilbert Rogers, an artist and wartime Royal Army Medical Corps officer, were commissioned by the Committee for the Medical History of the War to paint a series of pictures of the work of the RAMC. Another type of medical painting shown in the exhibition is a number of before and after portraits by Henry Tonks of men undergoing plastic surgery after suffering facial wounds. Some similar photos are also displayed.

The exhibition features other photographs and film as well. A wall displays 40 photographic portraits, some of unknown subjects intended to display different aspects of the war, but many of famous people, including several women. Extracts from two films, one British and one German, about the Battle of the Somme are shown on a rolling loop.

Both films featured a mixture of actual footage of the battle and reconstructions of battle scenes. The British one, Battle of the Somme by Geoffrey Malins and John McDowell, came out first and was very successful, being seen by 20 million people in its first six months of release. It is available on DVD and on YouTube. The German rival, Bei unseren Helden an der Somme [With our Heroes on the Somme] was less successful. It included footage clearly from earlier in the war and its reconstructed scenes were not even filmed on location. It can also be found on YouTube.

This is a very interesting exhibition. It is too small to make a lengthy journey just to see it, but is well worth seeing if in the area.

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The Battle of Toulouse 10 April 1814

Napoleon abdicated on 6 April 1814, but news did not reach the south of France until after Wellington’s Anglo-Portuguese and Spanish army had fought a battle against Marshal Nicolas Soult’s French army at Toulouse.

Wellington had defeated Soult at Orthez on 27 February. The 4th and 7th Divisions of Wellington’s army, commanded by Lord Beresford, entered Bordeaux without a fight on 12 March. The mayor, Jean-Baptiste Lynch, grandson of an Irish Jacobite, and many of the locals supported the Bourbon King Louis XVIII. Wellington encountered little opposition from partisans in south west France. Ralph Ashby comments that:

The area was hardly a Bonapartist stronghold to begin with…Bourbon sympathies ran higher than elsewhere in France.

More importantly, Wellington was the one Allied army commander who kept a tight rein on his troops. Looting was absolutely forbidden, on pain of hanging…Wellington took care of his supply lines, and paid for requisitions in full.[1]

The 7th Division remained at Bordeaux, but Beresford and the 4th Division rejoined the army on 18 March. whereupon it resumed its pursuit of Soult across south west France. On 20 March Soult managed to evade an attempt to pin his army against the Pyrenees at Tarbes. Two of the roads east were cut, but the French held the one to Toulouse for long enough to escape.

Jac Weller points out that Wellington had a number of problems: he would be outnumbered if Soult could combine with Marshal Louis Gabriel Suchet’s army, which was in Catalonia; operating in enemy territory, he had poor maps and lacks the accurate intelligence that he had received in Spain and Portugal; and he was not fully informed about the course of the campaign further north.[2]

Toulouse was on the east of the Garonne, a wide river. It contained a large arsenal and was surrounded by thick walls, but it lacked outworks, meaning that Wellington’s siege train could breach its walls if the guns could get close enough. The suburb of St Cyprien, to the west of the river, was fortified.

Crossing the Garonne was difficult. The first attempt was made at Portet five miles south of Toulouse after dark on 27 March. It had to be abandoned because the pontoon bridge was 80 feet too short to cross the river there.

The Garonne narrowed three miles further south above its junction with the Ariège. On 30 March the pontoon bridge was laid there, and 13,000 men under Sir Rowland Hill crossed.[3] However, they could not cross the Ariège because there was no bridge across it and no other pontoon. Moreover, there was no road capable of carrying wheeled transport to Toulouse.

The second attempt had to be abandoned, with the troops returning across the pontoon. The French did not discover the first attempt at all, and did not find out about the second one until a day later. Soult sent two divisions, with two more in reserve, to confront Hill once he had crossed the Ariège, but the lack of roads prevented the French advancing. Soult concluded that the British move had been a feint.

Wellington now realised that he could only cross the Garonne north of Toulouse. A suitable spot was found, and 18,000 men under Beresford crossed on 4 April. The pontoon bridge was barely wide enough to cross the river at this point. It was broken after heavy rain caused the river to rise, isolating the troops who had crossed. They were, however, in a strong defensive position, and Soult did not attack them. Sir Charles Oman says that he thought that most of Wellington’s army had crossed the Garonne.[4] By 7 April the river had fallen, and the bridge had been repaired.

Wellington’s 49,000 men began the assault on Toulouse and its 42,000 defenders on 10 April. Hill’s corps was to demonstrate at St Cyprien to the west of the Garonne. On the other side of the river Sir Thomas Picton’s 3rd Division and Karl von Alten’s Light Division were to threaten the Toulouse. The main attack was to be made further north, against the Calvinet ridge, which looked down on the city.

The Calvinet would be attacked from the north by two Spanish divisions under General Manuel Freire, supported by Portuguese artillery, and from the east by the 4th and 6th Division commanded by Beresford. Beresford’s troops had to march further in order to get into position, so Freire was ordered to wait until they were ready.

The attack did not go to plan. Hill’s demonstration was well executed, but failed to fool Soult, who moved troops from St Cyprien to the Calvinet. Picton pushed on too far, taking unnecessary casualties for no benefit. Freire launched his attack before Beresford was in position.

Wellington, seeing Freire’s move, sent orders to Beresford to attack the Calvinet immediately rather than waiting to get into the originally planned position, even though this meant that his troops would be attacking a strongly defended part of the ridge. Freire’s assault had been beaten back by the time that Beresford received this order, so he ignored it and continued with the original plan, which was to attack the ridge at a more weakly defended point.

Beresford’s troops advanced towards the ridge, beat off a French counter-attack, and took part of the ridge with relatively light casualties. Beresford waited until his artillery had been brought up before resuming the assault. His men took the rest of the ridge with help from a further attack by Freire. It was forced back, but helped Beresford by distracting a large number of French troops.

Soult still held Toulouse, but his positions were vulnerable to artillery fire from the Calvinet, and his supplies would last only a month. Wellington expected him to counter-attack on 11 April, but Soult, concerned that enemy cavalry was moving to cut him off, decided to retreat to Carcassonne.

Both side claimed to have won the Battle of Toulouse. Wellington took the city, but suffered more casualties: his army lost 655 killed, 16 missing and 3,887 wounded against French casualties of 322 killed, 541 missing and 2,373 wounded. Peter Snow writes that Wellington ‘described his rather dubious victory as a “very serious affair with the enemy in which we defeated them completely.”‘[5]

It was very unfortunate that the poor communications meant that such a bloody battle was fought after Napoleon’s abdication. On Soult 17 April he received formal notification of Napoleon’s abdication. He signed an armistice the same day, which required the French to evacuate fortresses in Spain, but not those in France. However, two further actions took place before these orders reached every garrison.

On 14 April General Pierre Thouvenot, the French garrison commander at Bayonne, ordered his troops to sally out against the enemy troops blockading the fortress, although he had been informally informed of Napoleon’s abdication by then. British casualties were 150 killed, 457 wounded, excluding men captured, and 236 captured: many of the prisoners were also wounded, amongst them Sir John Hope, the commander of the blockading force. The French lost 111 killed, 778 wounded and 16 missing.

The garrison of Barcelona sallied against their besiegers two days later, but in this case they were unaware of Napoleon’s abdication.

Thouvenot eventually surrendered on April 27 after receiving a copy of Soult’s armistice the day before.Oman argues that the sally would have achieved nothing even if the war was continuing, noting that Wellington called Thouvenot ‘a blackguard’.[6]

The Napoleonic War was now apparently over, but it was to resume a year later.

 

 

[1] R. Ashby, Napoleon against Great Odds: The Emperor and the Defenders of France, 1814 (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), p. 130.

[2] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 351.

[3] Troop numbers are from C. W. C. Oman, A History of the Peninsular War, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902-30). vol. vii. pp. 456-57, 556-60.

[4] Ibid. vol. vii, p. 460.

[5] P. Snow, To War with Wellington: From the Peninsula to Waterloo (London: John Murray, 2010), p. 229.

[6] Oman, Peninsular. vol. vii, p. 508.

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The Fall of Paris 30-31 March 1814 and Napoleon’s Abdication.

Napoleon retreated to St Dizier after being defeated by Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia at Arcis-sur-Aube on 20-21 March 1814. After some prevarication the Coalition decided that Schwarzenberg’s army and Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia should advance on Paris.

Captured dispatches revealed that Napoleon intended to threaten the Coalition lines of supply back to the Rhine. They also indicated that the morale of the French army and it commanders was low, and that the Paris police chief feared that its population might not stay loyal to Napoleon if the enemy approached the capital.

General Ferdinand von Winzengerode was ordered to pursue Napoleon with 8,000 cavalry.[1] He was to trick the Emperor into thinking that both Coalition armies were following him, and to make sure that the Coalition command knew where Napoleon was.

The Army of Bohemia defeated the French corps of Marshals Auguste de Marmont and Édouard Mortier at La Fère Champenoise on 25 March, leaving the road to Paris open. Napoleon’s only chance of holding his capital was to return to it. Dominic Lieven argues that he would have been ‘likely to galvanise and coordinate the defence, and overawe potential traitors in the city’ even if he had rushed there on his own, without bringing reinforcements to the garrison.[2]

Winzengerode was defeated by Napoleon on 26 March, losing 1,500 men and 9 guns.[3] However, Napoleon did not learn of La Fère Champenoise and the threat to Paris until the next day. He began to force march his army towards Paris, but it was too late to get there in time.

Napoleon’s Empress Marie-Louise and their son, the King of Rome, left Paris on 29 March. They were followed by Napoleon’s brother Joseph and much of the government the next day.

By the evening on 29 March the Coalition had 107,000 men outside Paris. Marmont had 12,000 regulars and Mortier 11,000, but many of the 19,000 strong garrison were poorly trained National Guardsmen.[4]

The heights of Montmartre in the north and Romainville in the centre and the stone buildings of the city benefitted the defender. However, little had been done to fortify the city. F. Loraine Petre argues that Napoleon did not want ‘the people to think that he, the conqueror of Europe, had to look to earthworks for the defence of his capital.’[5]

Many of the Coalition troops were not ready to attack in the morning, but General Nikolai Raevsky’s Russian corps beat Marmont’s corps to the village of Romainville in the morning and also took Pantin. They held these against French counter attacks, but the Coalition were unable to make further progress until 3 pm, when all their corps were in position.

The French were forced back to Montmartre and Marmont requested an armistice, which was agreed at 2 am on 31 March. The Coalition had suffered 8,000 casualties in taking Paris.[6]

Napoleon had force marched his army as far as Troyes by 30 March, but it was too exhausted to continue further. He pressed on, initially with just two cavalry squadrons, and then with only five officers in light carriages. Early on 31 March he learnt of the surrender of Paris, and returned to Fontainebleau.

The Emperor had 36,000 troops with him on 1 April, rising to 60,000 two days later. He wanted to fight on, but the Coalition had 145,000 men in Paris, making his position impossible.[7]

The Coalition, which had previously offered to allow Napoleon to keep his throne if he accepted France’s 1792 frontiers, had not yet decided whether or not to restore the Bourbons. Their main objective was to install a regime that would be accepted by the French population and would ensure peace.

One possibility was a regency for Napoleon’s infant son, but this was risky whilst Napoleon was alive. On 1 April the Coalition announced that it would not deal with him or any of his family. The next day the French Senate, ‘stage-managed’ by Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, Napoleon’s former foreign minister, deposed Napoleon and invited King Louis XVIII to return to France.[8]

Napoleon, informed by his Marshals that he had no choice, abdicated on 4 April, initially in favour of his son. The Coalition refused to accept this, and he renounced the throne for himself and his heirs two days later.

On 16 April the Treaty of Fontainebleau was ratified. Napoleon retained his title of Emperor with sovereignty over the island of Elba, a pension of two million francs per annum and a 600 man guard. He departed for Elba on 28 April.

Lieven argues that giving Napoleon Elba was a ‘serious blunder.’ He notes, however, that Tsar Alexander wanted to be ‘generous to a defeated foe.’ The British were not prepared to allow Napoleon his preference of living in Britain, whilst the terms of Marmont’s surrender prevented ‘any constraint on Napoleon’s freedom.’[9]

As a general Napoleon fought a very skilful military campaign in 1814, but as a statesman he left himself with an impossible task. He rejected several offers of terms that were far better than he could have obtained by fighting on as he was unwilling to accept a peace that he had not won on the battlefield.

France was exhausted and outnumbered, making the outcome of the campaign a foregone conclusion. Napoleon was not strong enough to win a decisive victory and could not have afforded a major defeat. He was beaten in the campaign even without one.

 

[1] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), pp. 518-19.

[2] Ibid., p. 511.

[3] F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), p. 195.

[4] Ibid., p. 199.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lieven, Russia, p. 515.

[7] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 1001.

[8] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 528.

[9] Lieven, Russia, pp. 518-19.

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The Battle of La Fère Champenoise 25 March 1814.

Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia defeated Napoleon’s army at Arcis-sur-Aube on 20-21 March 1814, but did not immediately pursue the retreating enemy. Napoleon reached St Dizier on 23 March.

On 22 March a patrol of Cossacks from Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia captured a French courier who was carrying a letter from Napoleon to his Empress, Marie-Louise. It revealed that the Emperor planned to attack Schwarzenberg’s communications in order to draw the enemy away from Paris.

Blücher sent a copy of the captured letter to the main Coalition headquarters with the Army of Bohemia. A conference between Schwarzenberg, Tsar Alexander, King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia and their staffs on 23 March decided that the two Coalition armies should unite and pursue Napoleon.

The Coalition commanders then received further captured dispatches. They showed that the morale of the French army and it commanders was low, and that the Paris police chief feared that its population might not stay loyal to Napoleon if the enemy approached the capital. These convinced Alexander that the Coalition armies should advance on Paris.

On 24 March the Tsar persuaded Friedrich Wilhelm and Schwarzenberg that this was the right thing to do. Moving to a rich region that it yet to see fighting would make it far easier to supply the Coalition armies than would be the case if they followed Napoleon through an area that had already been ravaged by war. Paris was far more important politically to Napoleon than Berlin, Vienna or Moscow were to his enemies.

General Ferdinand von Winzengerode was ordered to pursue Napoleon with 8,000 cavalry. He was to trick the Emperor into thinking that both Coalition armies were following him, and to make sure that the Coalition command knew where Napoleon was. The rest of the Coalition armies were to advance on Paris

The Coalition cavalry advance guard under General Pyotr Pahlen and the Crown Prince of Württemberg encountered the corps of Marshal Auguste de Marmont and Édouard Mortier at La Fère Champenoise at about 8 am on 25 March. Initially 5,700 Coalition cavalry and 36 guns, later reinforced by 2,500 more Austrian cavalry, faced 12,300 French infantry, 4.350 cavalry and 68 guns.[1]

The French cavalry were driven off the field and two light infantry regiments were forced to surrender. Marmont and Mortier could see that there were large numbers of enemy troops advancing on them, so retreated the rest of their troops in good order until about 2 pm. The Russian heavy cavalry of General Nikolai Preradovich’s 1st Cuirassier Division then arrived, bringing the Coalition force up to 12,000 men, and a heavy rain and hail storm started.

With rain and hail blowing into their faces, the French infantry were unable to fire their muskets. Two squares gave way under fire from Russian horse artillery, and many of the French infantry panicked and ran.

At the same time the sounds of another battle behind the Coalition cavalry could be heard. Neither side knew what this meant. Was it Napoleon marching to the rescue of Marmont and Mortier? In fat two French National Guard divisions, escorting a large convoy of guns and supply wagons, were being attacked by two cavalry divisions from the Army of Silesia.

The 5,000 inexperienced French troops, commanded by Generals Michel-Marie Pacthod and François-Pierre-Joseph Amey, fought gallantly against Baron Korff and General Ilarion Vasilchikov’s 4,000 cavalry and three horse artillery batteries. They had to abandon their supply wagons as they retreated in square. Eventually their retreat brought them into contact with the main Coalition cavalry force. Most of the Frenchmen were killed or forced to surrender.

The National Guardsmen fought very bravely, but the French suffered very heavy losses at La Fère Champenoise. Dominic Lieven estimates that they lost half of 23,000 men and almost all their guns in a fight with 16,000 Coalition cavalry.[2] F. Loraine Petre says that the French lost over 10,000 men killed, wounded and captured and 60 guns against 2,000 Coalition casualties.[3]

 

[1] Unless otherwise stated troop strengths are from D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), pp. 509-11.

[2] Ibid., p. 511.

[3] F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), p. 192.

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The Battle of Arcis-sur-Aube 20-21 March 1814.

Napoleon’s victory at Rheims on 13 March 1814 put his army in between Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia and Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia. The Army of Silesia, temporarily commanded by General August von Gneisenau because Blücher was ill, retreated to Laon, where it had defeated Napoleon on 9-10 March.

This gave Napoleon an opportunity to move south with 24,000 men, including 4,500 recently arrived reinforcements, in an attempt to stop Schwarzenberg’s 122,000 troops advancing on Paris. He left 21,000 men under Marshals Auguste de Marmont and Édouard Mortier to cover the 100,000 strong Army of Bohemia. Marshal Jacques Macdonald, with 42,000 troops, had been ordered to hold back the Army of Bohemia, However, his force had been forced to retreat, and was reduced to 30,000 men by 17 March.[1]

Napoleon had a choice of three routes of advance: to Arcis-sur-Aube to threaten Schwarzenberg’s rear; to Provins to join Macdonald in front of Schwarzenberg; or to Meaux. The last option would take him closer to Paris and there was a bad crossroads on the second route, so he chose the first, which he said ‘is the boldest, and its results are incalculable.’[2]

The French advance began on 17 March. Napoleon now had a bridging train, enabling his army to move faster than it had been able to earlier in this campaign. However, Schwarzenberg, after learning of the Coalition defeat at Rheims, began to retreat to Troyes on the same day. Macdonald was unable to prevent him doing so.

Napoleon decided to advance on Arcis-sur-Aube, which he thought was held only by a small rearguard. From past experience he thought that defeating it would result in Schwarzenberg retreating. However, the Austrian had decided to take the offensive.Battle_of_Arcis-sur-Aube_map

The French took Arcis without opposition by 11 am on 20 March. Napoleon arrived at 1 pm and ignored reports that there were large enemy forces advancing on Arcis. Instead he unquestioningly accepted a report by one officer that the only Coalition troops nearby were 1,000 Cossacks, which suited his ‘preconceived notions.’[3]

At 2 pm Schwarzenberg launched a major attack. Coalition cavalry at first forced back General Horace-François-Bastien Sébastiani’s outnumbered French cavalry, despite the support of Marshal Michel Ney’s corps. However, Napoleon put himself at the head of some newly arrived Old Guardsmen and rallied the cavalry. He frequently exposed himself to enemy fire in this campaign. At one point he deliberately rode his horse over an enemy howitzer shell just before it exploded. The horse was killed, but the Emperor was unharmed.

After dark Sébastiani, with the addition of 2,000 recently arrived French cavalry, commanded by General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouëttes, launched a charge that routed two Coalition cavalry divisions. Their advance was halted by Russian artillery, but they retreated in good order.

The French held the field after the first day and lost fewer men than the over 2,000 casualties that they had inflicted on the enemy.[4] Napoleon still believed that he had fought the enemy rearguard, which had just been bigger than he had expected. However, Schwarzenberg had massed over 80,000 men, hidden on reverse slopes, to attack the next day. Some more French reinforcements arrived overnight, but Napoleon had only 28,000 men, including 9,000 cavalry at dawn on 21 March.[5]

F. Loraine Petre argues that if Napoleon had not ignored the reports that he faced a major opponent he could have safely moved across the Aube at night. He could then have left Macdonald behind in a defensive position, whilst threatening the Coalition lines of communication by operating along the north bank of the Aube. Tsar Alexander feared that he would do this, which would probably have forced Schwarzenberg to retreat.[6]

On the morning of 10 am Schwarzenberg delayed ordering an attack as he was uncertain of Napoleon’s strength and intentions and because the Tsar opposed a Coalition offensive. Napoleon at first continued to believe that he faced only the enemy rearguard, but waited for the arrival of Macdonald.

Just after 10 am Napoleon, unaware of how many enemy troops were hidden on the reverse slopes, ordered Sébastiani and Ney to advance from Torcy-le-Grand on his left flank. They stopped on seeing the size of the Coalition army.

Petre argues that a bold Coalition attack at this point ‘must have swept the French bodily into the river.’[7] However, Schwarzenberg did not decide to issue attack orders until after a council of war at noon, and the attack would not start until he gave the command.

Napoleon acted quickly once he realised that he had been acting on false assumptions. He issued orders to retreat across the bridge at Arcis and a pontoon bridge that was to be hurriedly built at Villlette. The pontoon bridge was ready by 1:30 pm.

Schwarzenberg did not attack until 3 pm, when he finally realised that the French were retreating across the river. The rearguard was commanded by Sébastiani, who got most of his cavalry across the pontoon bridge before destroying it, and Marshal Nicolas Oudinot; his outnumbered troops fought in Arcis until 6 pm, when they withdrew across the bridge and destroyed it.

Over the two days the French suffered about 3,000 casualties and the Coalition 4,000.[8] The Coalition did not try to pursue the retreating French, who reached St Dizier on 23 March.


[1] Coalition troop strengths are from D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 505; French from F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), pp. 156-58.

[2] Quoted in Petre, Napoleon at Bay, p. 156.

[3] This phrase is used by both D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 996; and Petre, Napoleon at Bay, p. 169.

[4] Petre, Napoleon at Bay, p. 171.

[5] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 997.

[6] Petre, Napoleon at Bay, p. 172.

[7] Ibid., p. 174.

[8] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 998.

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