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The Battle of Montereau 18 February 1814.

Napoleon defeated Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia at the Battles of Champaubert, Montmirail, Château-Thierry and Vauchamps between 10 and 14 February 1814. However, Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia had taken the offensive in the Seine sector.

Napoleon’s original plan had been to attack Schwarzenberg’s lines of communication once he had dealt with Blücher. However,. By 15 February it was clear that the French forces facing Schwarzenberg would not be able to hold his advance on Paris for the two to three days that this manoeuvre would take to organise. David Chandler points out that Napoleon ‘could not ignore a direct threat to Paris, and consequently had to adopt a less decisive plan.’[1]

Click here for a campaign map from West Point’s website and here for a map of the Battle of Montereau.

Napoleon left the corps of Marshals Édouard Mortier and Auguste de Marmont to cover Paris in case Blücher resumed the offensive. He took the Imperial Guard and General Emmanuel de Grouchy’s cavalry 47 miles south in 36 hours, with some of his infantry travelling in wagons and carts. He entered Gugnes at 3pm on 16 February.

Including the troops that were already in the Seine sector, Napoleon now had 60,000 men with which to attack the Army of Bohemia. He was heavily outnumbered, but Schwarzenberg’s four corps were widely spread. General Friedrich von Bianchi’s Austrians, General Karl Phillip von Wrede’s Bavarians, Prince Ludwig Pyotr Wittgenstein’s Russians and the Württembergers under their Crown Prince, were advancing along separate roads. Poor connecting roads, mud and the Seine made it hard for them to stay in contact with each other.

Wittgenstein, on the Coalition right (northern) flank had pushed on ahead of the rest of the Army of Bohemia. On 17 February its 4,300 strong advance guard, under General Pyotr Pahlen, was overwhelmed at Mormant by Napoleon’s advance guard, commanded by General Maurice-Etienne Gérard, with supported from Grouchy. Gérard and Grouchy then forced Wrede’s advance guard to retreat from Valjouan. [2]

Marshal Claude Victor’s corps was supposed to have taken part in these two actions, but moved slowly. Victor, Gérard and Grouchy, along with General Claude-Pierre Pajol’s cavalry, were then ordered to advance quickly to Montereau. Napoleon wanted to beat the retreating Army of Bohemia to Troyes.

Victor had been ordered to reach Montereau at 6 am on 18 February, but paused overnight, allowing the Württembergers time to prepare their defensive position. The first French troops to arrive were 1,500 cavalry, 3,000 National Guards and 800 gendarmes under Pajol. They were poorly trained, and were unable to make any progress against the Württemberg corps of 8,500 infantry, 1000 cavalry and 26 guns.

Victor’s advance guard did not arrive until 9 am. His initial attacks were unsuccessful. Napoleon, angry at his tardiness, replaced him with Gérard. Napoleon and the Guard arrived at 3 pm. The French now had 30,000 men and 70 guns on the field, and the Württembergers withdrew in the face of new attacks. They lost 5-6,000 men, 3,400 of them being captured, and 15 guns. French casualties were 2,500 killed and wounded.

The defenders had the Seine behind them, with only one bridge to retreat across. A final French cavalry charge, in which Pajol was so severely wounded that he took no further part in the war, captured both the Seine bridge and one over the Yonne before the Württembergers could blow them. F. Loraine Petre suggests that they should have retreated and destroyed the Seine bridge as soon as they were attacked, but Schwarzenberg had ordered them not to do so.[4]

On the same day the French reached the Seine at Nogent and Bray, only to find the bridges had been blown. As they then had no bridging train, the capture of the bridge at Montereau was vital. They also took a bridge over the Yonne as after the battle of Montereau.

Schwarzenberg now ordered his army to retreat to Troyes, less Wittgenstein’s corps, which was to link up with Blücher at Méry by 21 February. Napoleon, who now had 75,000 men with him, pursued rapidly with the intention of fighting Schwarzenberg near Troyes on 23 February. Schwarzenberg had 90,000 troops and Blücher 50,000. However, Alexander Seslavin, a Cossack commander regarded as ‘very reliable’ by his superiors, had reported that Napoleon now had 180,000 men.[5]

Petre notes that Schwarzenberg was worried about ‘the incalculable results of defeat.’[6] He was also concerned by the threat to his line of retreat of from Marshal Pierre Augereau’s corps in the south, ‘unnecessarily’ according to Chandler. Schwarzenberg therefore decided to withdraw his army to Troyes. He ordered Blücher to retreat his army, including Wittgenstein’s corps, across the Marne.

Chandler contends that ‘Schwarzenberg’s inglorious but probably justifiable caution thwarted Napoleon of a decisive action.’[7] He goes on to argue that the Emperor had outmanoeuvred and outfought two enemy armies that both outnumbered him, but could not win a military victory because he lacked the necessary manpower and France was war-weary.[8]

Napoleon could probably have now agreed a peace settlement that would have left him Emperor of France within its 1792 borders. He had reluctantly allowed his foreign minister, the Marquis de Caulaincourt, to negotiate on that basis after his defeat at La Rothière on 1 February. However, his subsequent victories meant that he was prepared to accept nothing less than France’s natural frontiers, stretching to the Rhine, and perhaps even wanted to keep Italy. He told his brother Joseph that:

If I had accepted the historical borders I would have taken up arms again two years later, and I would have said to the nation that this was not a peace that I had signed but a forced capitulation.[9]

[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 978.

[2] Troop strengths in this and the previous paragraph are from are from Ibid.

[3] French casualties are from Ibid., p. 980, which says that Württemberg casualties were 6,000. Other numbers in the last two paragraphs are from F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), pp. 83-85.

[4] Ibid., p. 85.

[5] Ibid., p. 88.

[6] Ibid., p. 89.

[7] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 981.

[8] Ibid., p. 982.

[9] Quoted in D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 490.

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The Battle of Hanau and the End of Napoleon’s 1813 German Campaign.

Napoleon was forced to retreat to the Rhine after his defeat at Leipzig on 16-19 October 1813. His retreat ‘was on the whole a remarkably successful operation’ in the opinion of David Chandler.[1] The Coalition armies pursued cautiously, and the French were moving along their main line of communications, enabling them to resupply and re-equip as they retired.

About 100,000 French troops reached the large supply base of Erfurt on 23 October.[2] They were issued with new equipment, but had to resume the retreat the next day because the Coalition forces were close behind. The French continued to lose many tired, sick and hungry stragglers on the retreat.

France’s erstwhile ally Bavaria had changed sides and joined the Coalition against France on 14 October. On 30 October, following two days of skirmishing, 43,000 Austrians and Bavarians under the command of the Bavarian General Karl Phillip von Wrede attempted to block Napoleon’s retreat at Hanau, a few miles east of Frankfurt-on-Main, the next supply base on the French line of retreat.

Wrede believed wrongly that the French main body was further north, on the road towards Coblenz, so thought that he faced only 20,000 men. Wrede took up a position described by F. Lorraine Petre as ‘hopelessly bad.’[3]

The River Kinzig flowed behind the Austro-Bavarian centre before turning to divide the right from the rest of the army. They could cross only at the Lamboi bridge because the river was swollen by the autumn rains. A thick forest allowed the French to approach close to the enemy without being spotted.

Napoleon had only about 17,000 men available at first, but attacked the Austro-Bavarian left flank. He was able to obtain a local superiority because of the terrain. Wrede’s left flank, consisting mostly of cavalry, was driven off the field by French cavalry and artillery.

The centre resisted for a little longer, but then had to retreat because its left flank was threatened by the victorious French cavalry. Casualties were increased because the river obstructed the retreat. Wrede brought reinforcements from his right to the centre, but they were forced to retreat back over the Lamboi bridge, and hundreds were drowned.

Napoleon, having driven Wrede off, continued his retreat. The French bombarded Hanau at 2 am on 31 October. Wrede evacuated it, and the French occupied it at 8 am. Wrede launched an unsuccessful counter attack, in which he himself was wounded, and the French passed through Hanau on their way to Frankfurt.

Wrede’s army lost 9,250 men killed and wounded at Hanau. French combat casualties were far lower, but the Coalition captured five French generals, 280 officers and 10,000 men from 28-31 October.[4]

The French reached Frankfurt, less than 20 miles from the Rhine, on 2 November. About 70,000 organised troops and 40,000 stragglers made it across the Rhine. Nearly 300,000 men had been lost so far in the campaign. Another 100,000 in isolated garrisons across Germany were effectively lost.

On 11 November Marshal Laurent St Cyr accepted terms for the surrender of Dresden that would allow the garrison to return to France provided that they did not take part in the war. However, Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg, the Coalition commander, refused to ratify the agreement, leaving St Cyr little choice other than unconditional surrender. The same thing happened at Danzig and Torgau.

Napoleon had suffered an enormous defeat for the second year running. He failed to learn one of the lessons of the failure of his 1812 Russian Campaign, which was that his army was too big for one man to co-ordinate with the communications of the day. Before the decisive defeat at Leipzig, Napoleon had won all of the battles where he was in personal command, Lützen, Bautzen and Dresden, but his subordinates had lost the other three significant battles of the campaign.

The marshals had to operate more independently than most were capable of. Napoleon should be blamed for failing to train them to do so, and did not make the most of his better commanders. Louis Davout, commanding the Hamburg garrison, and André Masséna, not employed after his defeat at Fuentes de Oñoro in 1811, would surely have done better than Nicolas Oudinot, beaten at Gross Beeren, Jacques MacDonald, beaten at the Katzbach or Michel Ney, beaten at Dennewitz.

Napoleon came up with impressive plans throughout the campaign, but his army was no longer able to execute them successfully. His inexperienced troops were tired and hungry because they were short of supplies. Napoleon also lacked good intelligence of the enemy’s strength and movements because the huge horse casualties of 1812 left him short of the cavalry needed to carry out reconnaissance.

The Emperor made key mistakes during the campaign. He should not have agreed to an armistice after his victory at Bautzen, since the opposing Coalition was building up its forces faster than he could. He might have won at Leipzig if he had not broken his rule of concentrating all available forces at the decisive point by leaving a substantial garrison at Dresden.

In the Autumn campaign the Coalition stuck successfully to its Trachenberg Plan of retreating when facing battle with Napoleon himself, whilst attempting to threaten his lines of supply and defeat isolated French corps, until it was able to concentrate all its forces at Leipzig and win a decisive victory.

[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 937.

[2] Troop strengths are from Ibid., pp. 937-38.

[3] F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), p. 391.

[4] Ibid.


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