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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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The Battle of Vauchamps 14 February 1814

Napoleon defeated two corps of Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia at the Battle of Montmirail on 11 February 1814. However, he soon learnt that Prince Karl Philipp zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia had taken the offensive in the Seine sector, so prepared to move his army south in order to meet this threat.

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

Blücher, on learning of Schwarzenberg’s actions, guessed correctly that the Napoleon would head south. He therefore ordered his other two corps, commanded by Generals Friedrich Kleist and Petr Kaptsevich, to advance with the intention of threatening Napoleon’s rear. They totalled about 20,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry.[1]

Marshal Auguste de Marmont’s 4,000 men, who had been screening Napoleon’s army from Blücher, were forced to retreat from Vertus. However, Marmont withdrew skilfully, allowing Napoleon time to prepare a counter-stroke by 20,000 men of the Imperial Guard and General Emmanuel de Grouchy’s II Cavalry Corps

At 10am on 14 February Marmont, who had now been reinforced to 5,000 men, was attacked at Vauchamps, about 4 miles to the east of Montmirail, by Blücher’s advance guard, commanded by General Hans von Zieten. Grouchy’s cavalry then arrived from the north, attacked Zieten’s right flank and routed his division.

Click here for a map of the battlefield.

Blücher, who had learnt of Napoleon’s presence from a prisoner and seen the fur caps of the Old Guard in the distance, retreated back the way that he had advanced. The Coalition withdrawal was led by Kleist’s corps. Kaptsevich’s corps, accompanied by Blücher, was harried by French infantry and cavalry.

At 4:30pm Kleist’s corps was attacked by Grouchy’s cavalry, which had got ahead of them by advancing along a parallel road. The Coalition retreat was slow because their infantry had to remain in squares in order to defend themselves against cavalry attacks in territory described by Dominic Lieven as ‘excellent cavalry country.’[2] The Prussians and Russians fought bravely, and their discipline held, allowing them to escape, but with heavy casualties.

David Chandler and F. Loraine Petre both argue that the Coalition army escaped only because Grouchy’s horse artillery got stuck in the mud.[3] Napoleonic infantry could beat off cavalry if they formed square in time, but were then very vulnerable to artillery.

After Blücher had extracted his army from the trap, Napoleon ordered the Imperial Guard and Grouchy’s cavalry to move towards the Seine in order to confront Schwarzenberg. Marmont was ordered to continue the pursuit. The battle cost the Coalition 7,000 men killed, wounded and captured, 16 guns and many wagons. The French lost only 600 men.

Napoleon had in six days no more than 30,000 men in any action inflicted losses of 16,000 men killed, wounded and captured, 47 guns and numerous wagons on the Army of Silesia, over a quarter of its strength. Chandler says that

the second week of February is worthy of Napoleon at his best, and many commentators have compared the tactical brilliance he displayed with the great days of the First Italian Campaign.[4]

However, Petre points out that

Napoleon’s movement against Blücher was a brilliant success, but by no means so complete as he hoped for…he had certainly not annihilated [the Army of Silesia].[5]

Marshal Jacques Macdonald’s failure to cut off the Coalition retreat from Montmirail at Château-Thierry and the mud that prevented Grouchy from bringing up his horse artillery against Kleist’s squares at Vauchamps meant that the Army of Silesia survived. Its losses were soon replaced.


[1] Troop numbers are from D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966). pp. 970-75 unless otherwise stated.

[2] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 489.

[3] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 975; F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), pp. 70-71.

[4] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 976.

[5] Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814, p. 75.

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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 Nations: Leipzig (2) The Battle 16-19 October 1813.

On 14 October 1813 Napoleon abandoned his attempt to destroy the three Coalition armies that he faced in Germany in detail, and moved his army to Leipzig. On 16 October he was attacked by the Army of Bohemia under the Austrian Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg from the south and the Prussian General Gebhard von Blücher’s Army of Silesia from the north. The Army of North Germany under Bernadotte, the Crown Prince of Sweden and formerly one of Napoleon’s Marshals, had moved more slowly, but would be at Leipzig by 18 October.

Napoleon was outnumbered on 16 October but not hugely, except in artillery. According to F. Lorraine Petre the Coalition had 205,000 men, including 3,500 Cossacks and 40,000 other cavalry, and 916 guns at Leipzig on 16 October. The French had 191,000 men, including 30,000 cavalry, and 690 guns. These odds were not enough to counter-balance Napoleon’s superiority to the opposing commanders. However the Coalition would have 321,000 men, including 8,500 Cossacks and 60,000 other cavalry, and 1,382 guns by 18 October. The French army would then have risen only to 205,000 men, including 30,000 cavalry, and 700 guns.[1] David Chandler thinks that both sides had more guns on 18 October than Petre says: 900 French and 1,500 Coalition.[2]

If Napoleon was to win he had to do so quickly. The French were in a strong position, although the Emperor did not intend to sit on the defensive. They had the advantage of operating on interior lines, making it easier for them to move troops around the battlefield. They had increased this advantage by destroying a large number of bridges. Napoleon was looking north for future operations and his possible line of retreat. There was a shortage of bridges if his army had to retreat west, which was the shortest route back to France.

Napoleon, unaware of the locations of Blücher and Bernadotte’s armies, did not expect much action in the north, which was to be held by III, IV, VI and VII Corps under Marshal Michel Ney.

The main French attack would come in the south. The 37,000 men of II, V and VII Corps, would pin the Army of Bohemia. The 23,000 men of Marshal Jacques Macdonald’s XI Corps and General Horace-François-Bastien Sebastiani’s II Cavalry Corps would envelop the enemy right. The decisive blow would be made by the Imperial Guard, including its cavalry, IX Corps and I Cavalry Corps, a total of 62,000 men, supported by either IV or VI Corps moving south.

The Coalition intended that Blücher’s 54,000 men should attack in the north west and General Ignac Gyulai’s 19,000 in the west. Their main attack, however, would be in the south with 77,500 Austro-Russians under Prince Ludwig Pyotr Wittgenstein. The 24,000 men of the Russian and Prussian Guards would be held in reserve.[3]

At 7 am Napoleon ordered Marshal Auguste Marmont to move his VI Corps south. Marmont obeyed, although he could see Blücher ‘s campfires, so knew that the Coalition were likely to attack in the north. However, Blücher ‘s troops then began to advance, and Ney cancelled Marmont’s movement, ordering him to take up position at Möckern instead. Ney told General Henri-Gratien Bertrand’s IV Corps to move south in place of VI Corps, but Gyulai then launched his attack against Lindenau, and Ney sent IV Corps to reinforce against this assault. He sent only two divisions of General Joseph Souham’s III Corps south.

The main Coalition attack in the south started around 8:30 am, but was hampered by poor co-ordination, mist and rain. The poor weather also held up the French enveloping move. A frontal battle therefore took place around Wachau. By 11 am the Coalition attack was running out of steam. Reinforcements were brought up, but they encountered XI Corps moving forward.

In the north Blücher moved cautiously because he knew that Bernadotte would not arrive that day. The fighting in the north and west was going well for the French, but it meant that neither IV nor VI Corps could move south. The two divisions that Ney did send south did not arrive in time to take part in the attack.

The French began counter-attacking in the south at mid-day, and were able to force the Coalition troops back. However, the absence of reinforcements from the north prevented the planned envelopment of the Coalition right from coming to fruition. Nevertheless, Napoleon launched his main attack at 2 pm.

This initially went well. At 2:30 pm a major cavalry action began. The French I Cavalry Corps, commanded by General Jean-Pierre Doumerc because General Marie-Victor-Nicolas Latour-Maubourg had been wounded, broke two Coalition battalions, captured 26 guns and nearly got to Tsar Alexander’s command post. A counter-attack by Alexander’s escort squadron and Russian cuirassiers pushed the tired French cavalry back at 3:30pm. This could have been a decisive breakthrough, but Doumerc and Marshal Joachim Murat failed to send reinforcements. The Army of Bohemia had been forced to retreat, but was still intact.

Napoleon would have sent reinforcements to exploit the success of I Cavalry Corps if he had been on that sector, but he had ridden north to Möckern just 2:30 pm after hearing heavy firing.

The battle round Möckern was fierce. Around 2 pm Blücher sent Count Johann Ludwig Yorck’s corps against Marmont’s VI Corps and Count Alexandre de Langeron’s corps against General Jan Dombrowski’s Polish division on Marmont’s right. The Poles were forced back by weight of numbers. Langeron’s advance was held up, however, when he mistook an advancing French division for a corps and fell back.

Ney recalled the two divisions of III corps that he had sent south. He then changed his mind, and ordered to turn round again. They spent most of the day marching between Möckern and Wachau without playing much role in either battle. Ney would make a similar mistake in the 1815 campaign.

A desperate battle took place between Yorck and Marmont’s corps at Möckern. The leading Prussian division was routed around 5 pm, and Marmont ordered General Karl von Normann’s Württemberg cavalry, which would change sides two days later, to charge. Normann refused, so Marmont advanced his infantry, but they were attacked by Yorck’s cavalry. VI Corps was thrown out of Möckern. Marmont rallied his men, and darkness ended the action before Blücher could commit his reserves.

The French won narrow victories at Lindenau and Wachau on 16 October, but were beaten at Möckern. The Coalition lost 30,000 dead, wounded and prisoners and the French 25,000.[4] The French might have won a decisive victory at Wachau if either the two divisions that Ney marched around the battlefield or the 30,000 man garrison of Dresden had been present, or if I Cavalry Corps’ success had been reinforced.

However, the number of Coalition reinforcements heading for Leipzig meant that the French chance of victory had now gone. Napoleon could have extracted the bulk of his army if he had retreated on 17 October, but he chose to stay and fight. He tried to win time by offering Emperor Francis I of Austria an armistice, but this only convinced the Coalition that Napoleon realised that he was close to defeat.

The 17 October was a quiet day, although there was some fighting between Blücher and Marmont’s troops. Napoleon did not attack, and the Coalition decided to wait a day for their reinforcements.

The Coalition intended to launch six attacks on the French. These were commanded by Blücher  and Bernadotte in the north, Count Levin August Bennigsen, Prince Mikhail Barclay de Tolly and Prince Friedrich Hesse-Homburg in the south and Gyulai in the west

Napoleon ordered the shortening of his line and made preparations to retreat. He ordered, too late, the construction of more bridges at Lindenau. The French held a gap between Blücher and Gyulai, allowing them a line of retreat.

The attacks began slowly. Hesse-Homburg’s attack was repulsed by Prince Józef Poniatowski’s Poles and Gyulai’s by Bertrand’s IV Corps. In the east MacDonald and Sebastiani linked up with General Jean-Louis-Ebenezer Reynier’s newly arrived VII Corps to complete the shortening of the line.

In the afternoon Barclay and Hesse-Homburg’s attacks were repulsed, but Bennigsen, eventually supported by the late arriving Bernadotte, forced MacDonald, Sebastiani and Reynier back. Napoleon committed the Old and Young Guards in a successful counter attack. However, at 4:30 pm two Saxon brigades and an artillery battery of Reynier’s VII Corps deserted to the Coalition, opening a gap in the French line.

Bennigsen and Bernadotte then renewed their attacks. By sunset the French were holding in the south, but had been forced back to the suburbs of Leipzig in the north and east. They were running out of ammunition, and clearly were unable to hold, so Napoleon ordered preparations for a retreat.

III, VII and IX Corps acted as a rearguard under the command of Marshal Nicolas-Charles Oudinot whilst the rest of the army began to retreat across the River Elster at Lindenau. The Coalition did not realise what was happening until 7 am, nearly five hours after the retreat had begun. The French received a further respite when Napoleon persuaded King Friedrich August I of Saxony to ask Alexander to spare Leipzig, resulting in a 30 minute ceasefire at 10 am.

Oudinot had 30,000 men to hold a front line of 6,500 yards.[5] They were forced back into the inner city by 11:30 am, but continued to resist, and it appeared as if the retreat would be a great success.

However, Napoleon had put the ‘unreliable’ General Dulauloy in charge of demolishing the only bridge over the Elster at Lindenau once the French army had crossed it.[6] Dulauloy delegated this to Colonel Montfort, who left a corporal in charge of the demolition charges. The corporal panicked when he saw some Russian skirmishers approach the bridge, and blew it whilst it was full of French soldiers, horses and wagons, with thousands of others still to cross.

Poniatowski, who had just been promoted to Marshal, drowned when he tried to cross the Elster. Those who could not cross fought on until surrendering in the late afternoon.

The Coalition lost about 54,000 me killed and wounded over the four days of battle. French losses were 38,000 killed and wounded, 5,000 Germans deserted and 30,000 captured. Six of Napoleon’s generals were killed, including Poniatowski, 12 wounded, including Marmont, MacDonald and Ney, and 36 captured, including Reynier. The King of Saxony was also captured. The French also lost 325 cannons, many supply wagons and much of their stores, including 40,000 muskets.[7]

Napoleon’s only chance of winning was on the first day because of the many Coalition reinforcements that were on their way. He might have done had he not left 30,000 men at Dresden, or if Ney had not marched two divisions round the battlefield.

The Emperor should have withdrawn on 17 October, but he still would have extracted more men, guns and supplies on 19 October without the negligence of the officers put in charge of demolishing the bridge. However, enough Frenchmen escaped for the war to continue. This might not have been the case if Bernadotte had arrived earlier.

This battle ended Napoleon’s empire east of the Rhine. Saxony was occupied by the Coalition, although Dresden held out until 11 November. Many of the members of the pro-French Confederation of the Rhine followed the lead of Bavaria, the largest member, and joined the Coalition.


[1] F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), pp. 328-29.

[2] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 932.

[3] Ibid., pp. 924-25.

[4] Ibid., p. 932.

[5] M. V. Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), p. 273.

[6] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 935.

[7] Ibid., p. 936; Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin, pp. 275-76.

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The Battle of Dennewitz 6 September 1813

At the start of the Autumn 1813 German campaign Napoleon appointed Marshal Nicolas Oudinot to command the Army of Berlin, which was ordered to capture Berlin. Its advance initially went well, but it was defeated by Prussian troops under General Friederich von Bülow at Gross Beeren on 23 August 1813.

Napoleon, following his victory over Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia at Dresden on 26-27 August, intended to take part of his army 60 miles north to Luckau. There he would  join up with Oudinot and attack Berlin.

The rest of the main army would remain at Dresden under the command of Marshal Joachim Murat to cover against the Army of Bohemia, which was regrouping. In the east Napoleon believed that Marshal Jacques MacDonald would be able to rally his Army of Bober after its defeat at the Katzbach by Prince Gebhardt Blücher’s Army of Silesia on 26 August.

Oudinot, however, ordered a retreat to Wittenberg on the Elbe rather than Luckau. This exposed the communications of both MacDonald’s army and the main French force.

Napoleon, angry at Oudinot’s performance, replaced him as commander of the Army of Berlin with Marshal Michel Ney on 2 September, but left him in charge of XII Corps. This meant that Ney had an unhappy subordinate in a key position. The army also included General Jean Reynier’s VII Corps, General Henri-Gratien Bertrand’s IV Corps and General Jean-Toussaint Arrighi’s III Cavalry Corps.

Ney’s orders were to attack Berlin, with support from Napoleon at Luckau. However, MacDonald’s army was in a worse state than Napoleon had realised, so he moved to Bautzen on 3 September to confront Blücher. The Army of Silesia withdrew, in accordance with the Coalition’s Trachenberg Plan of avoiding combat with Napoleon himself, but attempting to attack detached French corps.

Napoleon now returned to Dresden, having heard reports that Schwarzenberg was advancing on the city. Michael Leggiere argues that Ney’s orders to his army imply that he did not receive a message sent by Napoleon on 4 or 5 September informing him that his advance on Berlin would not now be supported by troops commanded by Napoleon.[1]

Bernadotte, the Crown Prince of Sweden and commander of  the Coalition Army of North Germany, intended that the advance guard of General Friedrich von Tauentzien’s 4th Prussian Corps would engage the French at Zahna. It would then fall back on the rest of the corps at Dennewitz  and Jüterborg. The rest of the Army of North Germany would then attack Ney’s left and rear.

On 5 September Oudinot’s corps forced Tauentzien’s advance guard to retreat. The next day Bertrand’s corps encountered Tauentzien’s at Dennewitz. Reynier’s corps was late leaving its overnight camp and then took the wrong road. This also delayed Oudinot.

There was a gap between Tauentzien’s right flank and Bülow’s corps. By 11 am Bertrand’s attack on Tauentzien was going well, but the French were unwilling to take risks on their left because of the threat from Bülow. He had started marching towards the guns at 10:30, and his troops reached the battlefield at 12:30. Tauentzien was beaten by then, but his troops had held the French up for long enough for Bülow to arrive.

Reynier did not reach the battlefield until 2 pm, with Oudinot arriving an hour later. The Prussian troops were by then under pressure, with Swedish and Russian reinforcements two or three miles away. F. Lorraine Petre comments that a French attack on their left at this stage could have won them the battle, but ‘Ney seized this moment to ruin his own chances of success.’[2]

Ney could not see what was happening on the left because of thick dust swirling in the air, amd decided that the decisive area was on the right, which he could see. He ordered Oudinot to move his corps from the left to the right in support of the remnants of Bertrand’s corps.

Reynier asked Oudinot to leave at least one division on the left, but Oudinot  insisted on obeying the letter of his orders, although he could see that they were mistaken. Petre, Dominic Lieven and David Chandler all criticise him for this, arguing that he did so because he was still upset at having Ney put above him.[3]

Bertrand was forced back by 5 pm, long before Oudinot was in position. Ney ordered a retreat on Dahme at 6 pm, but many French units did not receive  the orders, and his army scattered. Only a few French troops reached Dahme, and Ney ordered them to continue to retreat to Torgau.

Two Prussian corps totalling 45,000 men had defeated three French corps, killing or wounding 8,000 out of 58,000 enemy troops and captured 13,500 men, 53 guns and 412 supply wagons. Prussian losses were 10,500 killed and wounded including losses at Zahna and in the pursuit.[4]

See this website for a detailed description of the battle, including maps and orders of battle.

Bernadotte’s total army was bigger than Ney’s, but its Swedish and Russian components did not reach the battlefield until the battle was almost won. However, the Russian cavalry contributed significantly to the pursuit, in which most of the prisoners were taken.

Napoleon had won the biggest battle of the campaign so far, at Dresden, but his dilatory handling of the pursuit meant that he did not turn a victory into a rout. His subordinates had lost four other battles: Gross Beeren, the Katzbach, Kulm and Dennewitz. Dominic Lieven points out that the French had so far lost 100,000 men and over 200 guns and the Coalition, which was receiving more recruits, 85,000 men and 50 guns.[5] The campaign was only three weeks old, and the balance had swung against Napoleon.


[1] M. V. Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), p. 193.

[2] F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), p. 274.

[3] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 914-15; D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 424; Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign, pp. 274-75.

[4] Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin, p. 209; Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign, pp. 271, 276.

[5] Lieven, Russia, p. 425.

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The Battles of Dresden and Kulm 26-30 August 1813

The Coalition opposing Napoleon based their strategy for the Autumn 1813 campaign in Central Europe on the Trachenberg Plan, which stated that their armies should retreat if faced by the main French army under his personal command. They should attempt to defeat detached French corps and to cut Napoleon’s lines of supply.

Napoleon, however, was not worried about being cut off from France provided that he retained control of Dresden. He had established a large supply base there during the period between the signing of the Truce of Pläswitz on 4 June 1813 and the recommencement of hostilities on 16 August.

At the start of the Autumn campaign Napoleon moved eastwards with the intention of defeating Prince Gebhardt Blücher’s Army of Silesia, which was advancing towards Saxony. On August 21 Blücher learnt that he faced Napoleon, so retreated in accordance with the Trachenberg Plan.

Napoleon continued to advance for another day, but then received a message from Marshal Laurent St Cyr warning him that Dresden was threatened by Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia. Napoleon saw an opportunity to defeat the Army of Bohemia, the largest of the three Coalition armies in Central Europe: the other was Bernadotte’s Army of Northern Germany.

Napoleon therefore turned the bulk of his army back towards Dresden, taking the Imperial Guard (Marshal Adolphe Édouard Mortier), I (General Dominique Vandamme), II (Marshal Claude Victor) and VI Corps (Marshal Auguste Marmont) and the 1 Cavalry Corps. The Army of Bober under Marshal Jacques MacDonald was left to guard his eastern flank.

Napoleon planned to attack Schwarzenberg’s communications on 26 August and inflict a decisive defeat on the Army of Bohemia, which was spread out and vulnerable. This meant that his troops would have to march 120 kilometres between 22-26 August. This was beyond the capabilities of the Austrian Army, so Schwarzenberg did not consider the possibility that he might find himself facing Napoleon at Dresden.

Late on 25 August, however, Napoleon was informed by General Gaspard Gourgaud, who he had sent to inspect the defences of Dresden, that it would fall within a day unless St Cyr’s XIV Corps was reinforced. Napoleon called off the attack early the next day and ordered most of his army to march to Dresden. Vandamme’s corps was to attack the Army of Bohemia’s rear.

This was a decisive mistake by Napoleon. He sent more troops to Dresden than were needed to hold it, and fewer with Vandamme than were required to carry out his plan of destroying the Army of Bohemia by attacking its rear.

David Chandler says that ‘[t]he decision to switch practically the whole army to Dresden cost Napoleon the campaign.’[1]

Dominic Lieven, commenting on Napoleon’s original plan, argues that:

‘Had Napoleon carried out this plan it is very possible that he could have ended the campaign within a fortnight with a victory on the scale of Austerlitz or Jena.’[2]

St Cyr had established a line of improvised outposts on the outskirts of Dresden, based on the cover provided by walled gardens, houses and barricades. Five earthen artillery redoubts were constructed behind this line, but three of them could not support each other, and another had a restricted field of fire. Further back were the fortifications of the Altsadt, or old town, which had been partly rebuilt after the French captured the city earlier in the year.

Battle of Dresden 26-27 August 1813

Battle of Dresden 26-27 August 1813

The Army of Bohemia attacked Dresden on the morning of 26 August. Fighting died down by noon, by when the French had been pushed back to the redoubts.

By 11am the Coalition commanders, including the Russian, Austrian and Prussian monarchs, had taken up a position on the Räcknitz Heights, from where they could see French reinforcements arriving. Shouts of ‘Vive l’Empereur’ were heard by the Coalition troops, revealing that Napoleon was present.

The main attack by the Coalition was planned for 4pm. Tsar Alexander I of Russia wanted to call it off in accordance with the Coalition strategy of avoiding battle with Napoleon himself. Emperor Francis I of Austria declined to offer an opinion, but King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia wanted to fight on, since the Coalition had a numerical advantage of 158,000 to 70,000.[3]

Schwarzenberg was ordered to postpone the main assault until the monarchs could agree, but the new orders were transmitted slowly, and the attack went ahead. Napoleon left St Cyr in charge of the defence, which held, and formed three counter-attacking forces under Marshal Joachim Murat, Marshal Michel Ney and Mortier.

Napoleon launched his counter-attack at 5:30pm. By dark the French had retaken almost all of the line of outposts that they had held at the start of the day.

Napoleon was reinforced by Marmont and Victor’s corps overnight, taking his force to 120,000. The Army of Bohemia’s strength also increased, but only to 170,000 as potential reinforcements did not arrive.

Vandamme had crossed the Elbe with 40,000 men, forcing the 12,500 men of Eugen of Württemberg back. They were reinforced by 26,000 troops under General Alexander Ostermann-Tolstoy, preventing Vandamme from threatening the Army of Bohemia’s flank.

The Coalition plan for 27 August was to put 120,000 troops in the centre, with only 25,000 on each flank. The left flank was to be reinforced by 21,000 more men under General Johann von Klenau, but they failed to reach Dresden in time to take part in the battle

Napoleon, however, intended to hold the centre with 50,000 troops under Marmont and St Cyr, and to carry out a double envelopment, with 35,000 men on each flank. Murat commanded on the right and Ney and Mortier on the left.

Both French flank attacks went well: on their right the French took 13,000 prisoners from the Coalition’s left flank force. The French were hard pressed in the centre where they were considerably outnumbered. However, the Coalition cancelled an attack intended to create a gap between the French centre and left flank because the rain had created mud that made it impossible to bring up artillery.

Faced with defeat on both flanks and a threat from Vandamme to their rear, the Coalition commanders decided to withdraw overnight. Their morale cannot have been helped by a cannonball that nearly hit the Tsar. They had suffered 38,000 casualties and inflicted only 10,000.

An aggressive French pursuit could have turned a major victory into a rout that would have ended the campaign. If Vandamme could had beaten the Army of Bohemia to Teplitz it would have been trapped.

However, Napoleon was not well, and he had now received news of French defeats at Gross Beeren on 23 August and the Katzbach on 26 August. Marmont had told his Emperor at the start of the campaign that it was a mistake to divide his forces, saying that:

‘I greatly fear lest on the day which Your Majesty gains a great victory, and believes you have won a decisive battle, you may learn you have lost two.’[4]

The prediction had taken less than a fortnight to come true.

Napoleon left the pursuit to his subordinates, which meant that it was not well co-ordinated. Vandamme became isolated, and on 29 August was forced by Ostermann, who now commanded 44,000 troops, to fall back to Kulm. The next day the Coalition enveloped Vandamme by chance, when 12,000 retreating troops under General Friedrich von Kleist stumbled into the rear of I Corps. The majority of its troops managed to escape, but 13,000, including Vandamme, were captured.

Battle of Kulm, 29 August 1813

Battle of Kulm, 29 August 1813

Battle of Kulm, 30 August 1813

Battle of Kulm, 30 August 1813

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Napoleon won a great victory at Dresden, but the changes to his original plan, a tardy pursuit and defeats elsewhere meant that it was not a war winning victory. The Coalition plan of avoiding battle with Napoleon, but seeking it with his subordinates was working: Napoleon had won the only battle in the campaign so far at which he been present, but the Coalition had won the other three.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 906.

[2] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 395.

[3] Troop numbers are from Chandler, Campaigns, pp. 906-12.

[4] Quoted in Ibid., p. 903; M. V. Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), p. 136; and F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), p. 178.

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