Monthly Archives: January 2014

The Battle of Brienne 29 January 1814

Napoleon arrived at Châlons on 26 January to begin his 1814 campaign in defence of France. His available forces consisted of 14,747 men of the II Corps and the 5th Cavalry Corps under Marshal Claude Victor, 12,051 troops of the VI Corps and the 1st Cavalry Corps under Marshal Auguste de Marmont and 14,505 guards commanded by Marshal Michel Ney. The so-called French corps were far smaller than they had been in previous campaigns or Coalition ones were in this campaign.

Marshal Édouard Mortier, with about 20,000 soldiers, 12,000 of them guardsmen, had retreated from Bar-sur-Aube to Troyes after fighting an indecisive battle with Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia. Napoleon intended to attack Prince Gebhard von Blücher’s Army of Silesia before it could link up with the Army of Bohemia, forming a force too big for the French to fight.[1]

The Emperor’s initial plan was to attack Blücher at St Dizier on 27 January, but a brief action showed that the Army of Bohemia had moved towards Brienne, where Napoleon had attended the military academy.

Click here to see maps of the campaign from West Point’s website. There is a map of the Battle of Brienne on this website.

Blücher had about 25,000 men, as General Johan-David-Ludwig Yorck’s corps had become separated from the rest of the army. Napoleon decided to attack with Blücher with 34,000 men at Brienne before the two Coalition armies could join up. Marmont would  hold off Yorck, and Mortier would move to Arcis-sur-Aube, provided that this did not out Troyes at risk.[2]

Blücher believed initially that his opposition was poorly organised, writing on 28 January that ‘nothing more desirable can happen for us’ than an attack by Napoleon.[3] By the next morning, however, he had learnt from captured orders that the French were about to attack the rear of his army and redeployed to face the threat.

At first Blücher had only the 6,000 men of Count Zakhar Olsufiev’s corps at Brienne, but he brought up Prince Fabian von Osten-Sacken’s corps and the 3,000 cavalry of General Pavel Pahlen’s advanced guard of Prince Piotr Wittgenstein’s corps of the Army of Silesia at Brienne after receiving the captured despatches.[4]

F. Lorraine Petre notes that both sides had to commit their troops ‘piecemeal’, as Napoleon had to attack quickly if he was to win, whilst Blücher’s troops were not all present at the start of the battle.[5]

The initial French attacks, by General Emmanuel de Grouchy’s cavalry, went well, but had been beaten back by the time that Napoleon arrived.  A fierce battle then followed until well after dark. Napoleon, who led his raw conscripts into battle, was almost captured by Cossacks at one stage. Later Blücher and General August von Gneisenau, his chief of staff were also almost captured by the French.

Blücher successfully disengaged around 11 pm. His army lost 4,000 men killed and wounded and the French 3,000. Although the French held the battlefield they could not afford such a close ratio of casualties. The battle also forced the Army of Silesia closer to the Army of Bohemia. Its main benefit to Napoleon was that it boosted the morale of his inexperienced conscripts.


[1] F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), pp. 17-18.

[2] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 958.

[3] Quoted in Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814, p. 19.

[4] Ibid., p. 21.

[5] Ibid., p. 24.

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Test Site of Biggest British WWII Bomb Explored

Archaeologists are investigating a concrete structure at the Ashley Walk Bombing Range in the New Forest in the south of England. On 13 March 1945 it was used for a test drop of the 22,000 pound Grand Slam bomb, the largest bomb dropped until the first atom bomb.

The survey is using ground penetrating radar, magnetometry, electrical resistivity and electrical resistivity tomography  to study the damage done to the large concrete target building.  The bomb was dropped by a Lancaster bomber from 16,000 feet and hit the ground at 700 mph. It achieved its objective of creating a large but localised earthquake, leaving a crater that was 70 feet deep with a diameter of 130 feet.  It has subsequently been filled in.

The archaeologists want to find out how much damage was caused by the bomb.. The Independent newspaper reports that:

oral history research recently carried out by the New Forest archaeological team suggests that the entire structure was seen to physically move when the bomb exploded some 250 feet away.

The Grand Slam had been conceived by Sir Barnes Wallis five years earlier as a deep penetration bomb. It was first used against the Schildesche railway viaduct near Bielefeld Railway Viaduct on 14 March 1945, the day after the only test drop. The viaduct, which was a vital communications link for the Ruhr and had survived several previous bombing raids, was brought down.

Over 40 Grand Slams were dropped in nine raids, with other targets including railway bridges at Arnsberg, Arbergen and Neinburg, submarine pens at Bremen and gun emplacements on the island of Helgoland.

The Lancasters that dropped Grand Slams had to be stripped of their gun turrets and the armour plating behind the pilot’s seat in order to increase their bomb capacity from its normal 14,000 pounds. Their bomb bay doors were also removed because of the size of the bomb.

Grand Slams were also made in the USA, which but the USAF had not used any by the time that it dropped atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

See the BBC website for a film report and the Daily Mail one for pictures of the results of Grand Slam raids. YouTube contains a news film from Movietone on the Bielefeld and Arnsberg raids.

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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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History Documentaries on YouTube

People tend to think of YouTube as being a place to find amusing clips of animals, sport highlights and pop videos, but I recently discovered that it contains a lot of full length TV history documentaries and dramas.

It would seem likely that most, if not all, of these are online in breach of copyright, but it is up to the programme makers to complain to YouTube. Most of the British ones that I have found were made by the BBC and probably shown by PBS in the USA. Possibly they do not bother complaining if the programme is not currently available on DVD. None of the BBC programmes listed below are currently on sale as a DVD from Amazon UK.

Some of the programmes are divided into 10 minute segments, presumably in an extremely doubtful attempt to take advantage of YouTube’s rule that putting up a 10 minute segment from a programme constitutes fair usage.

To protect myself and Word Press against any allegations of copyright infringement I am not providing any links in this post, but programmes that I have found include several series by the late Richard Holmes, one of Britain’s leading military historians: War Walks, where he walked over battlefields from British wars from the 100 Years’ War to the Second World War; Western Front, about World War I; Redcoats and Rebels, a history of the American War of Independence; and The Iron Duke, a biography of the Duke of Wellington.

Other BBC documentaries available include several episodes of Timewatch, an excellent history series, including episodes on the Roman Way of War, medieval knights, the Boer War, the foundation of MI5, World War I  tanks, several on the World War II and others on non-military history.

Series shown by other TV companies in the UK that I have found include The First World War, written by Hew Strachan, and ones on both world wars in colour. World War I in Colour colourised black and white film, but World War II in Colour used original colour film.

Searching on major battles such as the Somme, Gallipoli, the Battle of Britain, Midway, El Alamein, Stalingrad, Kursk and Iwo Jima produces plenty of hits, including some feature films as well as documentaries.

Some documentaries from other countries that I found but have yet to watch include Soviet Storm: WW2 in the East, a Russian series, and Wehrmacht and Hitler’s Children, both produced by the German documentary maker Guido Knopp. Those two are both available with English narrations. Other Knopp documentaries are on YouTube, but in German.

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UK National Archives Digitises WWI War Diaries

NB: this announcement has been well publicised in the UK, so some of the linked websites are getting a lot of traffic, hence may open slowly for a day or two.

The UK National Archives announced today that it has completed the first stage of the digitisation of the war diaries kept by British Army units during the First World War. Every British Army unit had to keep a daily war diary containing reports on operations, intelligence summaries and other pertinent material. The hard copies of these are held at the NA in series WO 95, but it is now possible to see many of them online, albeit for a fee of £3.36 per diary.

The first stage sees the release of the diaries for the whole war of the seven infantry and three cavalry divisions sent to France and Flanders in 1914. As well as the diaries for the division, its component brigades, infantry battalions, cavalry regiments and supporting artillery, engineer, supply and medical units kept their own diaries. Diaries for units subsequently assigned to one of these divisions are included, not just those that comprised the divisions in 1914.

These diaries are the building blocks of most books written about the British Army in the First World War, going back to the Official Histories. Even books not based on archival research will have used other books that were based on these diaries. Note that these diaries are official military documents kept by unit adjutants. Some media reports seem to assume that they are the private diaries of individual soldiers.

A project called Operation War Diary has also been launched. Volunteers will analyse the pages that have been digitised. According to its website,

Data gathered through Operation War Diary will be used for three main purposes:

  • to enrich The National Archives’ catalogue descriptions for the unit war diaries,

  • to provide evidence about the experience of named individuals in IWM’s Lives of the First World War project

  • to present academics with large amounts of accurate data to help them gain a better understanding of how the war was fought

Operation War Diary is a joint venture between the National Archive, the Imperial War Museum and Zooniverse, a company that has developed systems that enable volunteers to help with scientific and historical research from home.

See the BBC website and the Great War Forum for more details.

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Stanley Spencer: Heaven in a Hell of War

I recently attended an exhibition of war art by Stanley Spencer titled Heaven in a Hell of War at Somerset House in London. It is on until 26 January 2014, before transferring to Pallant House in Chichester, West Sussex from 15 February to 15 June 2014.

The bulk of the exhibition consists of 17 pictures that are normally displayed at the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere, near Newbury, Hampshire, which is currently closed for renovation. They were painted specially for the chapel by Spencer, and show scenes from his experiences in the First World War.

Spencer volunteered to join the Royal Army Medical Corps in 1915. He was initially stationed at Beaufort Hospital, a mental asylum near Bristol that had been requisitioned as a military hospital. In 1916 he was posted to the Macedonian Front, initially as a medic. In 1917 he volunteered to transfer to the infantry, before becoming an official war artist.

The majority of the pictures show scenes from daily life Beaufort Hospital, but there are also some based on Spencer’s memories of Macedonia. The Daily Telegraph review of the exhibition reproduces some of them. The Resurrection of the Soldiers, Spencer’s vision of the end of the war, in which heaven has emerged from hell, is adhered to the wall over the high altar at Sandham, so could not be moved to the exhibition. It is instead depicted by a projection onto a wall.

The exhibition also includes some studies for Spencer’s paintings at Sandham and a number of war scenes from Macedonia and a portrait of Spencer painted by Henry Lamb, who was also served in the RAMC in Macedonia and as an official British war artist. He was instrumental in obtaining Spencer the commission to paint the pictures at Sandham.

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