Tag Archives: France

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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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 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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The Battle of Rheims 13 March 1814.

After his defeat at Laon on 9-10 March Napoleon was able to retreat to Soissons because of the inertia of General August von Gneisenau, who took command of the Army of Silesia after Prince Gebhardt von Blücher, its commander, was taken ill.

Napoleon remained at Soissons until he learnt that General Emmanuel de St Priest’s corps had moved to Rheims, within striking distance of Soissons, on 12 March. St Priest had been positioned at St Dizier in order to link the Army of Silesia with Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia.

Defeating St Priest would break the Coalition communications and threaten the Army of Silesia’s left rear and the Army of Bohemia’s right flank. Napoleon had been reinforced to 40,000 men since Laon, whilst St Priest had 12,000, a mixture of Russians and conscript Prussian Landwehr.[1]

Napoleon moved rapidly to Rheims, and launched a surprise attack on 13 March. St Priest’s Prussian Landwehr had dispersed to forage for food, and were easily beaten. The Russians put up sterner resistance, but were overwhelmed. The French inflicted 6,000 casualties and suffered only 700.[2] St Priest was amongst the wounded , and died on 29 March. This victory boosted French confidence and caused both Coalition armies to halt their advances.


[1] Troop strengths are from D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 503.

[2] Casualties are from D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 993.

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The Battle of Laon 9-10 March 1814.

Napoleon won a pyrrhic victory over Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia at Craonne on 7 March 1814. The French held the battlefield at the end of the day, but suffered more casualties than they could afford.

Napoleon thought that he had fought Blücher’s rearguard, and that the Army of Silesia was heading north. He realised that he could not win a major battle against it. However, he believed that if he pursued it and inflicted another defeat on its rearguard he could then turn south to deal with defeated Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia, which was advancing on Paris.

Blücher was not withdrawing, but had drawn up his army in a strong position just south of Laon. He placed the corps of Generals Friedrich von Kleist and Johann Ludwig Yorck along a steep ridge to the east of Laon. Some of their troops were hidden on a reverse slope. General Friedrich von Bülow’s corps held the centre, in front of Laon, and General Ferdinand von Winzengerode’s corps was positioned on flatter ground to the west. The corps of Prince Fabien von Osten-Sacken and Count Alexandre de Langeron were held in reserve.

Blücher had 85,000 men and 150 guns. Napoleon had only 37,000 troops with him. [1] Another 10,000 under Marshal Auguste de Marmont had been detached from the main body in order to prevent Blücher from retreating to Rheims. A mixture of bad weather, swampy terrain, Russian cavalry and inertia by Marmont meant that the Emperor was unsure of Marmont’s location.

On 9 March Napoleon’s leading troops, commanded by Marshals Édouard Mortier and Michel Ney, encountered the enemy. The Emperor launched a series of attacks. Blücher thought wrongly that Napoleon had 90,000 men, so feared that this attack was intended to pin his army whilst Napoleon enveloped it. He consequently acted very cautiously.

Marmont’s VI Corps arrived at about 2 pm. The troops and their commander were tired, and halted for the night after taking the village of Athies. Marmont failed to secure the narrow Festieux defile to his rear.

By the early evening reconnaissance reports had informed Blücher of the enemy’s weakness. He therefore ordered Yorck and Kleist’s corps, supported by Langeron, Sacken and cavalry, to attack Marmont.

VI Corps was caught foraging and thrown back. Kleist’s corps cut the Rheims road, and Coalition cavalry headed for the Festieux defile. It appeared that VI Corps’ line of retreat would be cut, resulting in its destruction.

However, complete disaster was averted by the actions of Colonel Charles Nicolas Fabvier. Marmont had sent him with 1,000 men and two guns to link up with Napoleon. On hearing the sound of the guns Fabvier retraced his steps and managed to reopen the Rheims road. At the Festieux defile the Coalition cavalry were beaten off by 125 Old Guardsmen who had been escorting a convoy.

The bulk of VI Corps were able to escape, but Marmont lost a third of his men, 45 guns and 120 caissons. David Chandler says that the whole French army was put at risk by ‘Marmont’s irresponsible conduct…it is a wonder that Napoleon left him in command of his formation.’[2]

Napoleon did not learn of VI Corps’ fate until 5 am the next day, 10 March. He decided to hold his position in order to take the pressure off Marmont. Blücher intended to aggressively attack that day, which Chandler and Dominic Lieven agree would have resulted in a major French defeat.[3]

However, the 72-year-old Blücher was taken ill overnight. His chief of staff General August von Gneisenau took command, but he lacked Blücher’s dynamism and confidence. Fighting on 10 March was therefore confined to skirmishing, and Napoleon was able to extract his army after dark, and retreat to Soissons. He still suffered a significant defeat, losing 6,000 men compared to 4,000 from the numerically larger enemy.


[1] Unlesss otherwise stated troop numbers are from D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 989-91.

[2] Ibid., p. 990.

[3] Ibid; D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 502.


[1] Unlesss otherwise stated troop numbers are from D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 989-91.

 

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The Battle of Craonne 7 March 1814

Napoleon defeated Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia at Montereau on 18 February 1814, but Schwarzenberg was able to retreat, preventing Napoleon from achieving a decisive victory.

Representatives of the Coalition of Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia met at Chaumont on 1 March. Eight days later they signed a treaty, which was dated 1 March, promising to continue the war and not to sign individual peace treaties with France. Britain agreed to pay £5 million in subsidies in 1814, to be evenly divided between the other three signatories. Napoleon was offered peace if he accepted the pre-Revolutionary War frontiers of France; he rejected this offer.

Click here for a campaign map from West Point’s website.

Even before the signing of this treaty Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia had resumed its advance northwards. It had been reinforced back to 53,000 men after its defeats at the Battles of Champaubert, Montmirail and Vauchamps between 10 and 14 February 1814.[1]

Blücher forced Marshal Auguste De Marmont’s heavily outnumbered force to retreat. Napoleon told his brother Joseph that ‘As soon as I see what Blücher wants to do I shall try to fall on his rear and isolate him.’[2]

Blücher was heading for Paris, but David Chandler notes that Napoleon doubted that Blücher would do something as risky as resuming his advance on Paris.’[3] However, the Emperor planned to attack the Army of Silesia’s rear with 30,000 troops of the Imperial Guard. Marmont and Marshal Édouard Mortier’s corps would pin Blücher frontally.

Marshal Jacques Macdonald was to command the 40,000 troops facing Schwarzenberg, but the enemy were to be given no hint that Napoleon had moved away. He told his minister of war that ‘I hope I will have time to complete my operations [against Blücher] before the foe [Schwarzenberg]  notices it and advances.’[4]

On 1 March Blücher ordered his army to cross to the north bank of the Marne after receiving reports that there were French troops advancing on him. All the bridges across the Marne had been burnt by the time that Napoleon reached the south bank. He had no bridging train, so had to wait whilst a bridge was repaired. He believed that he would have been able to decisively defeat Blücher here and to have destroyed Schwarzenberg’s army at Montereau had he possessed a bridging train.

Blücher was moving north with the intention of joining the Prussian corps of General Friederich von Bülow and the Russian corps of General Ferdinand von Winzengerode. By 5 March they had combined, giving Blücher over 100,000 men.

In the south Schwarzenberg had renewed his offensive once Napoleon headed north to attack Blücher. Macdonald had retreated, giving up Troyes. On learning of this Napoleon claimed that ‘I cannot believe such ineptitude. No man can be worse seconded than I.’[5]

The Emperor still intended to advance on Laon and attack Blücher. However, on 6 March he learnt that there was a substantial enemy force on the Plateau of Craonne. He assumed that it was Blücher’s flank or rear guard. In fact the Prussian wanted Napoleon to attack General Fabian von Osten-Sacken’s corps and Winzengerode’s infantry, commanded by General Mikhail Vorontsov. Winzengerode’s cavalry and General Friedrich von Kleist’s Prussian corps would then sweep round the French northern flank and attack their rear.

Dominic Lieven notes that this plan left a large portion of Blücher’s army unengaged, and that the flanking attack would have to move over difficult terrain that had not been properly reconnoitred. It consequently moved very slowly and failed to get into action.

Chandler gives Vorontsov and Sacken’s combined strength as 30,000, with 11,000 cavalry in the flanking attack.[6] Lieven says 10,000 cavalry, with Vorontsov’s 16,300 infantrymen fighting alone for the bulk of the day. He argues that claims that 29,000 Frenchmen opposed 50,000 Coalition troops count every soldier within a day’s march of the battlefield rather than the number who actually fought.[7] This website estimates 35,000 Frenchmen and 30,000 Coalition soldiers, noting that:

French author Houssaye gives Napoleon 30,000 men and Vorontsov 50,000 men. British military historian Digby-Smith gives 33,000 Frenchmen and 24,000 Russians. Another British author Maycock gives 30,000 Frenchmen and 20,000 Russians.

Vorontsov had a strong defensive position in the centre, based on the Heurtebise farm. Napoleon intended to pin him frontally, with 14,000 men led by Marshal Michel Ney attacking Vorontsov’s northern flank.[8] Ney attacked just after 10 am. This was earlier than planned, and the 72 guns of the Imperial Guard artillery were not ready to support him, resulting in his attack failing.

Vorontsov was able to hold his position comfortably until the early afternoon, when French reinforcements arrived. Blücher then ordered him to withdraw, as the failure of the Coalition flank attack meant that there was no reason to continue the fight. Vorontsov was reluctant to retreat, but eventually obeyed repeated orders by Sacken to fall back. His men withdrew in good order.

Chandler gives casualties of 5,000 Coalition and 5,500 French killed and wounded.[9] Lieven agrees on the Coalition casualties, but notes that the French initially admitted to 8,000 casualties until later French historians, such as Henri Houssaye,  downgraded this to 5,400. He adds that, whilst the French held the battlefield at the end of the day, they captured no guns and very few men. The French could not afford battles in which they lost even the same number of men as the enemy, so this was a bad result for them.[10]


[1] Unlesss otherwise stated troop numbers are from D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 984-88.

[2] Quoted in Ibid., p. 984.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Quoted in Ibid., p. 985.

[5] Quoted in Ibid., p. 986.

[6] Ibid., pp. 987-88.

[7] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), pp. 499-502.

[8] Ibid., p. 500.

[9] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 988.

[10] Lieven, Russia, pp. 501-2.

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