Tag Archives: Britain

Britain cuts German Cable Communications 5 August 1914

In the early hours of 5 August 1914, only a few hours after war was declared, Britain carried out something that seemed to be minor, but was actually vital. A British cable ship severed five German overseas underwater cables, which passed from Emden through the English Channel to Vigo, Tenerife, the Azores and the USA

This cut direct German communications to outside Europe, most significantly to the United States. The British could now intercept German signals to their embassies. They were sent in code, but British codebreakers were eventually able to read them.

Most significantly, Britain intercepted the Zimmerman Telegram, sent to the German Ambassador to Mexico. If the USA went to war with Germany, he was to offer the Mexicans an alliance with the promise that they would receive Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Its revelation helped to push the USA into war with Germany.

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Pre WWI British Naval War Plans

As in previous wars, Britain intended to blockade its Continental enemies in order to prevent them from trading with the rest of the world. In 1908 Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher, the First Sea Lord, decided that the traditional close blockade was no longer viable because of the threat from torpedo armed vessels. He therefore ordered that the blockade ships should withdraw 170 miles at night.

In 1911 Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, his successor, reinstated the plan for a close blockade. However, as well as being very risky, it required twice as many destroyers as the Royal Navy (RN) possessed, since one would be in port refuelling and one on the way to or from the port for each one on duty.

In mid-1912, the Admiralty considered replacing the close blockade with an observational one across the North Sea in the middle of 1912. This was rejected because it was still vulnerable to German attack and needed too many ships. Admiral Prince Louis Battenberg, who was appointed First Sea Lord in December 1912, called this idea ‘plain stupid.’[1]

A policy of distant blockade was introduced in July 1914. The Channel Fleet would block access to the English Channel. A line of cruisers from the Shetlands to Norway would prevent German trade with the rest of the world. They would be safe from the enemy because the Grand Fleet, the RN’s strongest force, including most of its dreadnoughts and battlecruisers, would frequently patrol the North Sea from its base at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys.

A good performance by submarines in the 1913 fleet manoeuvres led to suggestions that the close blockade might be reinstated using submarines. Nicholas Lambert notes that ‘[s]ufficient evidence has survived…to contradict widespread assertions of myopia among British naval officers with regard to the submarine.’[2] Admiral Sir John Jellicoe wrote that submarines ‘can undoubtedly carry out a blockade of the enemy’s coast in the old sense of the word.’[3]

There were not enough submarines to adopt such a policy in 1914, but it was intended to increase submarine construction in later years. The Naval Estimates had risen from £31.3 million in 1907-8 to £48.7 million in 1913-14. It could be reduced by replacing a planned battleship with a number of submarines. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote in the first draft of The World Crisis, his history of the First World War, that the margin of 60 per cent over Germany could be maintained by regarding dreadnoughts ‘not as capital ships, but as units of power which could, if desirable, be expressed in any other form.’[4]

The British switch to a distant blockade ruined German plans to whittle down the RN by attacks on British ships carrying out a close blockade. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the Secretary of State for the Imperial Navy Office, asked Admiral Friedrich von Ingenohl, the commander of the High Seas Fleet, Germany’s main naval force, in May 1914 ‘[w]hat will you do if they do not come [into the Heligoland Bight]‘?[5] Neither appeared to have an answer to this question.

Lambert argues in a recent book, Planning Armageddon, that the Admiralty planned to conduct economic warfare against Germany in a huge scale.[6] Britain would use its effective monopolies in banking, communications and shipping to disrupt the global economy and paralyse Germany. The plan was not carried out because of fears about the impact on Britain and neutral countries, especially the USA.

In the Mediterranean Austria-Hungary and Italy, although both members of the Triple Alliance with Germany, each regarded the other as its principal naval rival. They were building against each other, but their alliance meant that the Admiralty had to allow for the possibility that they would combine against Britain and France.

After a period of neglect of its navy, France laid down its first dreadnoughts in 1910. A new naval programme was announced in 1912, with 16 dreadnoughts planned, although the need to prioritise the army during the war meant that only seven were completed, plus another that was converted to an aircraft carrier.

Britain and France had undertaken a series of naval conversations, but were not formally allied. Britain, which had to match the threat from Germany in the North Sea, reduced its Mediterranean fleet. France, which could not match Germany on its own, moved most of its fleet to the Mediterranean.

Churchill was wary that the Anglo-French naval conversations had restricted British freedom of choice. He argued that both parties would have made the same dispositions of their fleets even without the talks as they were the logical  measures to take:

‘the French…are not strong enough to face Germany alone, still less to maintain themselves in two theatres. They therefore rightly concentrate their Navy in the Mediterranean where it can be safe and superior and can assure their African communications. Neither is it true that we are relying on France to maintain our position in the Mediterranean.’[7]

The Cabinet decided that Britain would deploy a Mediterranean fleet of a one power standard excluding France in 1915 when enough ships would be available, meaning a fleet of six dreadnoughts and the two newest pre-dreadnoughts. In the interval, the Mediterranean fleet would be made up of enough battlecruisers and armoured cruisers to ensure that Anglo-French strength exceeded the combined Triple Alliance fleet, including the German Mediterranean squadron of a battlecruiser and a light cruiser.

Despite the absence of a formal alliance between Britain and France Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, told the House of Commons on 3 August, the day before Britain declared war, that the naval conversations gave Britain a moral obligation to France:

‘the Northern and Western Coasts of France are absolutely undefended…The French fleet is in the Mediterranean, and has for some years been concentrated there because of the feeling of confidence and friendship which has existed between the two countries.’[8]

RN ships in the rest of the world were mostly old, with the exception of the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, the flagship of the Royal Australian Navy. Their wartime role would be to protect trade and hunt down the German cruisers that were stationed overseas.

 

[1] Quoted in H. Strachan, The First World War: Vol. 1, to Arms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 395.

[2] N. A. Lambert, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1999), p. 290.

[3] Quoted in Ibid., p. 289.

[4] Quoted in Ibid., p. 299.

[5] Quoted in P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 23.

[6] N. A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War (Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2012).

[7] Quoted in A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. v, p. 306

[8] Quoted in C. M. Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (London: Penguin, 2013), p. 544.

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Battle of the Chippewa, July, 1814- when Cousin Jonathan finally received some respect

Martin Gibson:

Excellent blog post about the Battle of the Chippewa 200 years ago from Bruce at History Stuff That Interests Me.

Originally posted on History Stuff That Interests Me:

This coming Christmas Eve the United States and Great Britain will be celebrating the end of the War of 1812. It was on December 24th, 1814 that the two powers signed the Treaty of Ghent that ended the conflict.

It is unclear at this point whether President Obama and PM David Cameron intend to mark the occasion with a grand ceremony. I doubt it. In fact, I bet that many Americans or Brits are even aware that 200 years ago the two countries fought a bitter little war that lasted about 30 months.

While barely remembered in Britain and the US the event has been extensively celebrated in Canada who see it as a type of independence day-an independence not from Britain but from the US because the US took the occasion of the war to invade Canada more than once in an attempt to make it part of the…

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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 Battle of Orthez 27 February 1814

After the Allied victory at the Battles of the Nive on 9-12 December 1814 Wellington paused his offensive. He left the 18,000 British and Portuguese troops of the 1st and 5th Divisions and three independent brigades plus 16,000 Spaniards to besiege Bayonne under the command of Sir John Hope. This left him with a field army of 48,000 men. The French commander Marshal Nicolas Soult had 62,500 men, but 17,000 of them were at Bayonne and 3,500 more were garrisoning St Jean Pied-de-Port and Navarrenx, leaving him with a field army potentially 42,000 strong.[1]

The weather improved in early February, and Wellington began his offensive on 14 February. St Jean Pied-de-Port was invested by Spanish guerrillas. On 23 February the French fortress of Navarrenx, which was too strong to attack, was masked by Morillo’s Division, the only Spanish troops in Wellington’s field army

Also on 23 February Hope ferried part of his corps across the Adour. The next day, the Allies, supported by Royal Navy boats on the Adour, completed construction of a pontoon bridge across the river. Bayonne was now surrounded.

By 27 February Wellington’s army had crossed four defensible rivers and was facing Soult’s army across the River Gave de Pau at Orthez. Soult had about 36,000 men and 48 guns, with another division of 3,750 conscripts on the way to reinforce him.[2] They were drawn up along an L shaped ridge, which ran a mile north from Orthez at right angles to the Gave de Pau before heading 3 miles west parallel to the river. Three smaller ridges extended from the main ridge to the river. The village of St Boes was situated at the western end of the ridge.

Wellington had 43,000 men and 54 guns.[3] Early on 27 February five of his seven infantry divisions and most of his cavalry crossed the river. The 2nd and Le Cor’s Portuguese Divisions and some light cavalry under Sir Rowland Hill remained on the south bank at Orthez opposite the eastern end of the ridge.

Hill’s orders were to skirmish and demonstrate at Orthez. He was not to cross the river there, but could cross further east if the attack in the west succeeded. The main assault, commanded by Lord Beresford, would be made at 8:30 am by the 4th Division, supported by the 7th, on St Boes from the western end of the ridge. Its intention was to turn the French western flank.

The French centre would be pinned by an attack by the Sir Thomas Picton’s 3rd Division along the most easterly and the centre of the three smaller ridges, supported by the 6th Division.

The Light Division would take a ruined Roman Camp at the north end of the most westerly of the three lesser ridges, the only one that did not connect directly to the main ridge. Wellington would then direct operations from the Roman Camp.

The attempt to turn the French right flank at St Boes failed, whilst Picton was halted just out of enemy artillery range. The Light Division took the Roman Camp. Wellington now changed his plan. The 3rd and 6th Divisions would launch a full scale assault rather than a pinning attack in the centre, the 7th Division would replace the 4th in the west and the 1/52nd (Oxfordshire) Battalion of the Light Division would attack the flank of the French troops defending St Boes. Only two British and three Portuguese battalions of the Light Division were left in reserve: two other British battalions of that division were not on the battlefield.

The second attack started at 11:30 am. The co-ordinated assaults at St Boes and along the eastern and central less ridges all succeeded in breaking the French line, forcing Soult to order his army to retreat after two hours of fierce fighting. Hill took most of his corps two miles east to a ford across the river when he saw that the Allied attacks were succeeding.

Jac Weller notes that the French had usually managed to successfully retreat after their defeats in the Peninsular.[4] On this occasion they were helped by Wellington being wounded after a bullet hit the hilt of his sword, forcing it against his hip and thigh. He had more cavalry than Soult, which might have turned a victory into a rout had he been in a position to properly direct its pursuit, but Wellington’s wound meant that he could not keep up with the advance.

Soult lost just over 4,000 men, including 1,350 prisoners: 1,060 of those captured came from units that covered the retreat. Wellington suffered 2,164 casualties: only 48 were from Hill’s corps.[5]

Sir Charles Oman contends that this battle showed that

with fairly equal numbers in the field, passive defence is very helpless against an active offensive concentrated on certain limited points, unless the defender uses adequate reserves for counter-attacks.[6]

Wellington took ‘a considerable risk’ in his final assault, when he attacked five enemy divisions with five of his own, but he knew from past experience that Soult would not launch a counter-attack.[7]


[1] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), pp. 342, 363.

[2] C. W. C. Oman, A History of the Peninsular War, 7 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1902-30). vol. xii, p. 355.

[3] Ibid., p. 357.

[4] Weller, Peninsula, p. 349.

[5] Oman, Peninsular. vol. vii, pp. 372-73.

[6] Ibid., p. 374.

[7] Ibid., p. 375.

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The Battles of the Nive 9-12 December 1813.

Wellington’s army successfully crossed the River Nivelle on 10 November 1813. Marshal Nicolas Soult, the French commander, managed to retreat his troops to the River Nive, the next defensive line.

Heavy rains delayed Wellington’s advance until early December. He had 36,000 British, 23,000 Portuguese and 4,000 Spanish infantry in France: Soult had slightly more men. Another 40,000 Spaniards had been left behind because Wellington feared that they would take revenge for the atrocities and privations inflicted on Spain by the French over the previous six years.[1] This would cause the French civilian population to resist, guaranteeing the failure of Wellington’s invasion.

On 21 November Wellington told Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War, that:

our success, and everything, depends upon our moderation and justice, and upon the good conduct of our troops. I despair of the Spaniards. They are in so miserable a state, that it is really hardly fair to expect that they will refrain from plundering a beautiful country, into which they enter as conquerors; particularly adverting to the miseries which their own country has suffered from its invaders. Without any pay and food, they must plunder, and if they plunder, they will ruin us all.[2]

Wellington also had problems with the Spanish government. Charles Esdaile notes that ‘it remained hard to discount the possibility of a complete rupture in relations.’[3]

Wellington’s army was in a position where it was safer to advance than to remain stationary. It was in a narrow salient with the coast to its west, the Nive to its east and the River Adour to its north. The two rivers met at the city of Bayonne.

Wellington’s plan was that part of his army, commanded by Sir Rowland Hill, would cross the Nive and advance on Bayonne. The rest of the army, under Sir John Hope, would remain on the west bank of the Nive and also advance north.

The French had destroyed the bridges across the Nive south of Bayonne. However, there were three bridges in Bayonne, allowing Soult to concentrate his army against either Hill or Hope in an attempt to defeat the enemy in detail.

Hill’s corps waded across the Nive at three fords near Cambo, meeting little resistance. Other Allied troops, commanded by Lord Beresford, crossed the Nive via a pontoon bridge further north. A bridge at Ustaritz was repaired, so the two corps could remain in contact with each other.

Hope advanced to Bayonne, expecting the French to remain in their fortifications. At about 9:00 am on 10 December, however, a French attack from Bayonne took him by surprise. There were two roads heading south from Bayonne between the Nive and the sea. One headed diagonally towards the sea and then south close to the coast. The other, to Ustariz, remained close to the Nive. Widespread woods and marshes meant that most of the fighting was near the roads.

The initial French attack along the coast road forced Hope’s pickets back three miles. Fierce fighting at a large farmhouse called the Chateau Barrouillet initially went badly for the Allies, who were outnumbered three to two. However, reinforcements arrived and stabilised the line. Both sides lost about 1,500 to 1,600 men killed, wounded and captured.

Meanwhile on the Ustariz road the Light Division was forced to retreat two miles to a strong defensive position at the Chateau and Church of Arcangues. As well as the two buildings, there was a hill with hedges and stone walls at its summit and marshy ravines at both ends. The Allies were able to hold off the enemy, inflicting over 400 casualties for the loss of 225 of their own men.

The French suffered slightly more casualties over the two actions, but they received a heavier blow in the evening. A German unit in French service, the Nassau Regiment, followed secret orders issued to its commander, General August von Kruse, by the Duke of Nassau after Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig to defect to the Allies. Soult lost 1,400 men directly. He and Marshal Louis Gabriel Suchet, commanding French troops in north west Spain, decided that they must disband all their German units, totalling 3,000 men.[4]

Soult now switched his attention to Hill’s corps on the east bank of the Nive, which he attacked at St Pierre on 13 December. Rain had caused the Nive to rise, sweeping away the Allied pontoon bridge the day before.

The Allied troops were at first pushed back in a bloody battle. However, once Hill learnt that reinforcements were on their way across the now repaired pontoon bridge he launched a counter-attack. The French were forced back to Bayonne. They lost 3,300 men killed, wounded and captured against 1,775 Allied casualties.

Wellington was now able to put artillery on the south bank of the River Adour, stopping traffic along it to Bayonne. This made it impossible to supply both the population and Soult’s army. Consequently he withdrew most of his army from Bayonne on 14 December, although he left a garrison that did not surrender until 27 April, three weeks after Napoleon abdicated.

An unusual feature of these battles was that Wellington left the bulk of the fighting to Hope and Hill, rather than following his usual practice of being at the key point himself. Jac Weller argues that Wellington realised that he would have to appoint somebody to an independent command at some point. The importance of seniority in the British Army meant that it had to be Beresford, who had already commanded at Albuera, Hill or Hope. Weller suggests that ‘at the Nive and St Pierre Wellington tried out the other two as independent commanders without too much risk.’[5]


[1] Troop numbers are from J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), pp. 327-41.

[2] Quoted in Ibid. Footnote 1, p. 326.

[3] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 479.

[4] Ibid., p. 481.

[5] Weller, Peninsula, p. 338.

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The Start of Napoleon’s 1814 Campaign

Following his defeat at Leipzig on 16-19 October 1813 Napoleon’s army was forced to retreat from Germany. He managed to get about 70,000 formed troops and 40,000 stragglers across the Rhine after winning the Battle of Hanau on 31 October, but he lost almost 300,000 men in Germany in 1813, with another 100,000 trapped in isolated garrisons. In the south Wellington’s army of British, Portuguese and Spanish troops had crossed the River Bidassoa into France on 7 October, and by 10 November were across the Nivelle.

The Coalition facing Napoleon had different objectives. The Austrians were the most willing to negotiate. Emperor Francis I of Austria was Napoleon’s father-in-law. More significantly, his chief minister, Prince Klemens Metternich was concerned that the overthrow of Napoleon would boost German nationalism, which he feared would weaken Austria’s position in central Europe.

Tsar Alexander I of Russia was, according to David Chandler, ‘in two minds’ about whether to avenge Napoleon’s occupation of Moscow in 1812 by occupying Paris or to stop a war in which Russia now seemed to be fighting for the benefit of others, but ‘[o]n balance…favoured action.’[1]King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia tended to follow the Tsar’s lead, but many of his countrymen wanted revenge for past defeats and humiliations at the hand of Napoleon.

Bernadotte, once one of Napoleon’s marshals and now Crown Prince of Sweden, dreamed that he might replace Napoleon as ruler of France. The British, concerned with the balance of power in Europe, were willing to leave Napoleon on the throne of France provided that it was restricted to its natural frontiers, excluding Antwerp and the Scheldt.

At Frankfurt on 16 November Metternich obtained the consent of his allies to offer Napoleon the 1797 frontiers of France, including Belgium and the Rhineland. Charles Esdaile suggests that Alexander agreed because he expected Napoleon to reject the offer, which would ‘legitimise the continuation of the war. Esdaile adds that Lord Aberdeen, the ‘young and inexperienced’ British Ambassador to Austria, ‘more surprisingly’ agreed to terms that did not achieve ‘several important British goals.’[2]

The Emperor gave a favourable verbal response to the envoy who brought them to him, but his initial written reply did no more than propose new peace talks, suggesting that he was just playing for time in order to build up his forces. The British insisted that nothing more should be done until Lord Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary, arrived.

On 30 November Napoleon gave provisional acceptance to the offer, but his envoys were told that discussions would now be based on France’s 1792 frontiers. This was unacceptable to the Emperor, who told the Marquis de Caulaincourt, his recently appointed Foreign Minister, that:

‘France without its natural frontiers, without Ostend or Antwerp, would no longer be able to take its place among the States of Europe.’[3]

Chandler doubts ‘whether either side was completely genuine in its offers and suggestions at this time.’[4] However, Esdaile argues that ‘it is impossible to say’ if the original offer would ever have been signed, but ‘it was the best that Napoleon could hope for.’[5]

The Coalition plan was complex. Bernadotte’s Army of the North, less General Friederich von Bülow’s corps, would continue the siege of Magdeburg, surround Hamburg and threaten Denmark. Bülow’s corps, supported by a British expeditionary force under General Sir Thomas Graham would move into Holland which had revolted against France rule, take Antwerp and invade France through Belgium.

The main attack would come from the 200,000 man Army of Bohemia, commanded by Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg, but accompanied by Alexander and Friedrich Wilhelm. It would move from Basle to Colmar, cross the Rhine and advance to the Langres Plateau. It would then attack the French right whilst Napoleon’s centre was pinned by Prince Gebhard von Blücher’s 100,000 strong Army of Silesia, which was to cross the Rhine between Coblenz and Mannheim.

Schwarzenberg’s army would link up with Austro-Italian troops that were moving on Lyon, whilst Wellington’s army would advance north from the Pyrenees. By the middle of February there would be nearly 400,000 Coalition troops in France.

The Coalition plan was the one that had worked in Germany the year before. Fortresses should be masked rather than besieged. Its armies should manoeuvre against the enemy’s flanks and lines of communication, forcing Napoleon to respond to these threats. The Coalition would attack only when it heavily outnumbered the enemy. If one Coalition army was attacked by a large enemy force it would retreat, and the other Coalition army would advance.

Against this there were only 67,000 French soldiers on the frontier from Strasbourg to the North Sea. Napoleon called up 936,000 men, but many evaded conscription, and less than 120,000 of them served in the 1814 campaign. There was a shortage of equipment for those who did report for duty and a lack of NCOs and junior officers to command them. Napoleon was forced to use invalids and pensioners as leaders of even Imperial Guard formations.[6]

The Emperor attempted to find troops from his Spanish and Italian allies, but the only ones that he obtained were some veteran troops from the French armies facing Wellington. His position was further weakened by the defections of the King of Naples, his brother-in-law Joachim Murat, on 11 January, and the King of Denmark 3 days later.

Napoleon’s main advantage was that he could move his army quickly around a country with good road and river communications and several supply depots. He had to prevent the enemy from uniting, but could not afford the casualties of even a victorious major battle. Chandler notes that the Emperor had to fight a ‘war of subtlety and fast manoeuvre.’[7]

Napoleon could risk losing Paris, which was the centre of his power and the main supply depot and headquarters of his army. F. Loraine Petre points out that Paris ‘represented France in a way that Moscow did not represent Russia in 1812, or Berlin Prussia in 1813.’[8]

Blücher’s Army of Silesia crossed the Rhine on 29 December 1813, followed by Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia on 1 January 1814. Blücher’s army moved 75 miles in nine days, and had crossed the Marne by 22 January. The next day its advance guard took a bridgehead over the Meuse. The cautious Schwarzenberg moved more slowly, but reached his initial objective of the Langres Plateau on 17 January. He then halted for six days because there were suggestions of a new peace conference.

By 23 January the flanks of the two Coalition armies were only two days march apart. Napoleon had hoped that his frontier forces would delay them more, enabling him to build up his army. He now had to take personal command of the field army. On 25 January he left Paris to start his 1814 campaign.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 947.

[2] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 517.

[3] Quoted in Chandler, Campaigns, p. 948.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, pp. 515-16.

[6] Troop strengths are from Chandler, Campaigns, pp. 948-50.

[7] Ibid., p. 955.

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

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The Battle of Crysler’s Farm 11 November 1813.

In September 1813 the USA invaded Lower Canada with the intention of capturing Montreal, thus cutting the lines of supply to British troops in Upper Canada. See this website for a map of the theatre of operations.

Two US armies took part in the invasion. One, commanded by General Wade Hampton, was to move from Plattsburgh along the River Chateuaguay, whilst the other, under General James Wilkinson, was to advance from Sackett’s Harbor along the River St Lawrence. The two were to unite at Montreal, but co-operation between them was hampered by a long running feud between the two US generals.

On 6 November Wilkinson learnt that Hampton’s army had been defeated by a Canadian force in the Battle of the Chateuaguay on 26 October. Wilkinson sent a messenger ordering Hampton to march west and rendezvous with him at Cornwall in Eastern Ontario. However, Hampton was retreating towards winter quarters at Plattsburgh.

Wilkinson’s 8,000 men were being followed and harried by a 1,200 man corps of observation as it sailed down the St Lawrence. It was commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Wanton Morrison, a British officer who had been born in New York when it was still under British control towards the end of the American War of Independence. The main British force was at their naval base of Kingston, which they assumed was Lawrence’s objective.

Morrison’s troops consisted of a mixture of British regulars from the 49th and his own 89th Regiments of Foot, three Royal artillery guns and crews, Canadian Fencibles, Canadian Voltigeurs, Tyendinaga and Mississauga Mohawk warriors and the Dundas County Militia. They were supported by a flotilla of gunboats commanded by William Howe Mulcaster. Two-thirds of the 270 Canadian regulars were French speakers.Crysler's Farm 1813

On 10 November a skirmish was fought at Hoople’s Creek. The next day Wilkinson decided that he needed to chase Morrison away before crossing the Long Sault Rapids. He was ill and his second in command, Major-General Morgan Lewis was unavailable, so Brigadier-General John Parker Boyd was put in command.

The Anglo-Canadians headquarters was at Crysler’s Farm, sometimes mis-spelt Chrysler’s Farm. Morrison was able to fight on ground of his choosing . Woods and two ravines enabled his men to take up concealed positions , but the Americans were moving across an open battlefield that exposed them to the accurate fire of the Anglo-Canadians

On 11 November the Americans were slow to attack, used only 4,000 of their troops and committed them piecemeal.  They lost 102 killed,  237 wounded  and 120 captured. Anglo-Canadian casualties were 31 killed, 148 wounded and 13 missing. About a third of the Fencibles, half of whom were French-Canadians, became casualties.

The American attack was called off after three hours. Their men were tired and hungry, and they had fewer experienced officers than their opponents. Despite the defeat Wilkinson ordered his army to cross the Long Sault rapids. However, the next day he received a message informing him that Hampton would not make their planned rendezvous, as he had retreated to winter quarters. Wilkinson therefore ordered his army to retire to winter quarters at French Mills.

As well as ending the US 1813 invasion, the battle is very important in Canadian history because it was a victory won by a mixture of British, English-speaking Canadians, French-Canadians and Mohawks.

The following websites were used in researching this post, in addition to those linked in the text:

About. com Military History

Canadian Military History Gateway.

The Friends of Crysler’s Farm Battlefield Memorial.

The Register of Canadian Historic Places.

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The Battle of the Nivelle 10 November 1813

The Duke of Wellington’s Allied army of British, Spanish and Portuguese troops captured San Sebastian on 31 August 1813, and on 7 October invaded France by crossing the River Bidassoa.

The advance was then delayed, allowing the French, commanded by Marshal Nicolas Soult, to retreat to the River Nivelle. As Charles Esdaile says, ‘the reasons were political.’[1] The French had been cleared out of Iberia, apart from the blockaded and starving garrison of Pamplona, and some in Portugal and Spain were reluctant to participate in an invasion of France. There was also the risk that Napoleon would win his German campaign, allowing him to move huge number of reinforcements to the Franco-Spanish border.

Pamplona surrendered on 31 October, meaning that there was no justification for further delay. The political disputes were overcome, allowing Wellington to use his entire army offensively

The Nivelle itself was not a formidable obstacle, but it was overlooked by hills that had been fortified. Wellington decided to attack to the centre-left of the 20 mile long French position. An assault on the extreme French left was rejected because the mountain passes there were often blocked by snow in winter. The right flank, from the sea to the village of Ascain, was too strongly defended.

Wellington was aware that the French had a strong position, but believed that it could be taken. He told the senior officers of the Light Division that:

‘It appears difficult, but the enemy have not men to man the works and lines they occupy. They dare not concentrate a sufficient body to resist the attacks I shall make upon them. I can pour a greater force on certain points than they can concentrate to resist me.’[2]

Sir John Hope was ordered to demonstrate between the coast and Ascain with 23,000 men in order to tie down an equal number of French troops. The main attack would come between Ascain and the Mondarrain mountain, where the 26,000 men of Sir Rowland Hill’s corps and the 29,000 of Lord Beresford’s corps would be opposed by 40,000 Frenchmen.[3]

The key French position was a hill called the Lesser Rhune, separated from the Great Rhune, taken by the Allies just after they crossed the Bidassoa, by a ravine. The Light Division was selected to attack the Lesser Rhune. Success would expose the flanks of the French troops either side of it.Battle of the Nivelle 10 November 1813

There were three separate enclosed fieldworks along the crest of the Lesser Rhune, and it appeared to be almost impregnable against an assault across the ravine from the Great Rhune. However, Wellington worked out a route that enabled the Light Division to descend into the valley and manoeuvre into a position to attack the Lesser Rhune’s flank. The fieldworks would not then be able to support each other against the attackers, and could be taken one after the other.

The Light Division began its attack before dawn, and had taken the Lesser Rhune by 8 am. The rest of the Allied army then advanced. The French were forced to retreat in order to avoid having their flanks turned.

The French lost 4,500 men killed, wounded and captured, plus 59 guns, and the Allies 2,700 men.[4] The November day was short, and the onset of darkness probably saved the French from a disaster. Soult was able to establish a new line along the next river, the Nive.


[1] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 476.

[2] Quoted in J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 320.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 325.

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The Crossing of the Bidassoa 7 October 1813.

The capture of San Sebastian on 31 August 1813 left Pamplona as the only Spanish city in French hands. It was surrounded and was being slowly starved into submission.

On 7 October Wellington’s Allied Army of British, Spanish and Portuguese troops invaded France by crossing the River Bidassoa, which was overlooked by the crests of the Pyrenees on the French side. Marshal Nicolas Soult’s French army had tried unsuccessfully to cross the Bidassoa at Irun and Vera on 31 August in an attempt to relieve San Sebastian.

The 1st Division, another British brigade, a Portuguese brigade and two Spanish division forded the river at Irun. The Light Division and three Spanish divisions crossed at Vera, helped by a demonstration by the 6th Division. Unknown to the French, the Bidassoa could be forded near the mouth of the river at low tide. Spanish shrimpers who worked the area led the British 5th Division across three fords at daybreak.

The British divisions all contained Portuguese as well as British troops, except for the 1st Division, which had two British brigades and one of the King’s German Legion, comprised of German expatriates: many of them were from Hanover, whose Elector was also the British King. See Wikipedia for an order of battle.

The 5th Division was across the river before it was spotted by the French. The attack at Irun began when the morning fog lifted at 7:25 am. The 1st Division was half way across the river before it was fired upon. By 11:30 am the Allied objectives in this area had been taken, and Wellington ordered a halt.

Fighting was fiercer at Vera. The Light Division encountered the Star redoubt, but took it after probing for weak spots. It then reached the crest overlooking the river, which were defended by fresh troops, earthworks and artillery. The rapid attack took the crest in several places, and the other defenders retreated.

The Spanish were held up by a hill on the Allied right called the Rhune. However, the French evacuated it the next day in order to avoid being out flanked.

The Allies had crossed the river and quickly taken their objectives. Jac Weller gives Allied casualties as 400 dead and wounded at Irun and 800 at Vera. French casualties were 450 men and all their artillery and most of their baggage at Irun and 1,250 men at Vera.[1] Charles Esdaile says that Allied casualties totalled 1,600 men, half of them Spanish.[2]

Soult fell back to a new defensive line along the River Nivelle.


[1] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814 (London: Greenhill, 1992), pp. 314-17.

[2] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 476.

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