Tag Archives: Blücher

The Battle of Montmirail 11 February 1814.

After his victory at Champaubert on 10 February 1814 Napoleon’s army was in the middle of Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s widely scattered Army of Silesia. General Johan-David-Ludwig Yorck’s 18,000 strong Prussian corps was at Chateau-Thierry and Viffort. Prince Fabian von Osten-Sacken had moved his Russian corps of 18,000 men and 90 guns west from Montmirail towards Trilport. The remainder of Blücher’s army was heading from Vertus, to the east of Champaubert, south west towards La-Fère-Champenoise.

Blücher ordered the troops moving away from Vertus to turn round and return there. Yorck was told to join Sacken at Montmirail, and to keep the bridge at Château-Thierry open in case they had to retreat across the Marne. Sacken’s instructions were to clear the road to Vertus with support from Yorck. They made no mention of any potential retreat across the Marne.

Napoleon made what David Chandler calls ‘the wise decision to concentrate on destroying the Prussian forces lying to the west.’[1] Blücher could have evaded an attack to the east by retreating to Châlons, with Sacken and Yorck being able to retire across the Marne. He therefore left Marshal August de Marmont with 4,000 men to screen Blücher. The other 20,000 would attack towards Montmirail.

Marshal Jacques MacDonald, who had been retreating towards Meaux, was ordered to take Château-Thierry and its bridge in order to block the enemy’s line of retreat.

Yorck, whose orders arrived late, sent a message to Sacken suggesting that he move towards Château-Thierry so that they would meet sooner. Sacken, however, obeyed his orders and headed east. When he encountered the French at the village of Marchais beside the junction of the roads to Château-Thierry and Montmirail, he deployed his troops south of the east-west road, increasing his separation from Yorck.

Mud had hampered Napoleon’s advance, so he was initially outnumbered, but  his force of 5,000 infantry and 4,500 cavalry of the Old Guard, 1,800 conscripts and 36 guns had a qualitative advantage.

Napoleon was aware that he was taking a significant risk in fighting when outnumbered. Yorck could arrive before French reinforcements, making poor odds even worse for the Emperor.

In the late morning and early afternoon Sacken attacked, taking Marchais by 11am. Napoleon made some attempts to retake Marchais, but mostly defended. By 2pm Yorck’s advance guard was approaching. However, he moved slowly, bringing up only a small proportion of his corps. Dominic Lieven says that the road that he was advancing on was shown to be paved on Coalition maps, but was actually a muddy track.[2]

At 3pm Marshal Édouard Mortier arrived with French reinforcements. Napoleon now had a reserve, so could attack. Marshal Michel Ney led six battalions of the Old Guard against Sacken’s left flank, which he had weakened in order to bolster the defences of Marchais. The French broke through Sacken’s first line. They then repulsed Russian counter attacks with the help of Imperial Guard cavalry.

Napoleon now had nearly 20,000 men on the field, and Sacken’s corps was in danger of being destroyed. Yorck made only limited attacks, but they were enough to allow most of Sacken’s troops to escape. Chandler describes this as ‘a victory for superior tactical skill, superior training and discipline.’[3]

Napoleon wanted to completely destroy Sacken and Yorck’s corps, but this relied on Macdonald cutting their line of retreat by beating them to Château-Thierry. He moved slowly, allowing most of the Coalition troops to get across the bridge, which they then burned.

Troop numbers quoted so far have been from Chandler.[4] F. Loraine Petre quotes one source as giving Sacken 16,300 men and 90 guns, but notes that he lost about 4,300 men on 11 and February and had 13,679 available on 16 February, giving him 18,000 at Montmirail.  Petre notes that estimates of the size of Napoleon’s force range from 12,300 to 20,000. [5]

Chandler says that Napoleon lost 2,000 men and Sacken 4,000 at Montmirail: it is not clear if the latter figure includes losses from Yorck’s corps. He states that 3,000 Prussians, 20 Coalition guns and a large number of wagons were captured at Château-Thierry. He does not give French casualties at the latter battle.[6]

Petre’s casualty numbers are more detailed, but not radically different: 2,000 Frenchmen, 2,000 Russians and 900 Russians killed and wounded and 900 Russians captured, with 12 Russian guns lost at Montmirail. He says that the Prussians lost 1,250 men, 6 guns and some of their wagons, the Russians 1,500 men, 3 guns and most of their wagons and the French 600 men at Château-Thierry. His figures add up to Coalition losses of 6,550 men and 22 guns against French casualties of 2,600.[7]

The burning of the bridge at Château-Thierry delayed Napoleon’s pursuit by a day, allowing Sacken and Yorck to escape. Napoleon blamed Macdonald for the failure to completely destroy Sacken and Yorck’s corps at Chateau-Thierry, Ralph Ashby notes that Napoleon was always quick to blame others, but adds that ‘Macdonald’s lack of action does appear to be inexcusable.’[8]


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 970.

[2] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 488.

[3] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 973.

[4] Troop strengths are from Ibid., pp. 970-73.

[5] F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), p. 64.

[6] Chandler, Campaigns, pp. 973-74.

[7] Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814, pp. 66-67.

[8] R. Ashby, Napoleon against Great Odds: The Emperor and the Defenders of France, 1814 (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), p. 100.

 

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The Battle of Champaubert 10 February 1814.

After its victory over Napoleon at La Rothière on 1 February 1814 the Coalition decided that Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia and Prince Karl Philipp zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia should advance on Paris by separate routes. Blücher would move along the Marne through Châlons and Meaux. Schwarzenberg was to advance beside the Seine through Troyes. Prince Piotr Wittgenstein’s corps and Alexander Seslavin’s Cossacks would link the two armies.

F. Lorraine Petre says that Schwarzenberg devised this strategy because he thought that keeping the two armies together would create major supply problems, whilst the more aggressive Blücher agreed because he was happy to operate independently.[1]

David Chandler notes that Schwarzenberg ‘for political reasons was secretly not so keen to see Napoleon’s immediate downfall.’[2] The Austrian Chancellor Prince Klemens von Metternich was concerned that the overthrow of Napoleon would boost German nationalism, which he feared would weaken Austria’s position in central Europe. Peace negotiations at Châtillon-sur-Seine began on 3 February.

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

The division of the two Coalition armies gave Napoleon an opportunity to attack and defeat one of them; his army was too small to take on the two combined. His original plan was to attack Schwarzenberg with 40,000 men. He thought that Blücher was heading for Nogent, where the Emperor expected to have 21,000 infantry, 2,400 cavalry and 46 guns by 6 February, enough to hold off Blücher.[3]

However, Blücher was headed for Paris, and he was moving more quickly than the cautious Schwarzenberg. Schwarzenberg, concerned by the threat to his flanks, moved Wittgenstein and Seslavin’s forces closer to his own, widening the gap between the two Coalition armies. Blücher’s army had also become over-extended because of the speed of its advance.

On 6 February Napoleon learnt of the threat to Paris, but thanks to interior lines was able to move his army to face Blücher. On the same day, however, he received several pieces of bad news: a Prussian corps under General Friederich von Bülow had taken Brussels and cut off Antwerp; Blücher’s advance had created great alarm in Paris; Napoleon’s brother-in-law Joachim Murat, the King of Naples, had defected; and the peace talks were going badly.

The Coalition was prepared to allow Napoleon to remain Emperor of France, but only within its 1792 frontiers. After a day’s consideration he decided that he was not prepared to accept less than France’s natural frontiers, which he argued stretched to the Rhine.

Napoleon’s immediate problem was that he did not know Blücher’s dispositions. In fact, the main column of the Army of Silesia was spread over 44 miles on 8 February, with General Johan-David-Ludwig Yorck’s corps 10-12 miles to the north.[4] Napoleon was informed on 9 February that the 15,000 men of Prince Fabian von Osten-Sacken’s corps were at Montmirail.

In total Napoleon had about 70,000 men facing 200,000. His need to cover the advance of two enemy armies meant that he had to divide his force into three parts. However, he believed that he could concentrate a field army of 30,000 men against Blücher’s force of about 45,000, 5,000 of whom were tied up by Marshal Jacques Macdonald’s corps.

On 9 February the French army moved north through Sézanne towards Champaubert. The same day Blücher ordered 30,000 of his troops to march on Sézanne the next day, However, on learning of Napoleon’s move Blücher decided instead to conduct an enveloping manoeuvre to Sézanne via La-Fère-Champenoise. His new orders were slow to reach some of subordinates, and his army remained scattered.

On 10 February Napoleon’s army encountered a small force commanded by Count Zakhar Olsufiev at Champaubert. Olsufiev had at most 4,000 infantry, 24 guns and few cavalry. He might have retreated, but he had been criticised by Sacken for withdrawing at Brienne on 29 January. He therefore stood his ground against a vastly superior force.[5]

When Olsufiev did eventually try to withdraw his retreat was hampered by bad weather and poor roads. Only 1600-1700 of his men and 15 of his guns escaped. Olsufiev himself was captured. French casualties were only about 200 dead and wounded.[6] Dominic Lieven notes that Napoleon claimed to have taken 6,000 prisoners, more than Olsufiev’s total force.[7] Ralph Ashby notes that fighting at home gave Napoleon an advantage, with peasants turning out to help move his guns through the mud.[8]


[1] F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), p. 99.

[2] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 964-65.

[3] Unless otherwise stated troop strengths are from Ibid., pp. 966-71.

[4] Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814, p. 55.

[5] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010). pp. 486-87 says 3,690 infantry and 17 cavalry; Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814. p. 58-59 says 4,000 infantry, 24 guns and no cavalry, but notes that a Russian source says 3,690 infantry.

[6] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 969; Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814, p. 60.

[7] Lieven, Russia, p. 487.

[8] R. Ashby, Napoleon against Great Odds: The Emperor and the Defenders of France, 1814 (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010).

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The Battle of La Rothiere 1 February 1814

Napoleon was uncertain of the positions and strength of his opponents after his victory over Prince Gebhard von Blücher’s Army of Silesia at Brienne on 29 January 1814. He was heavily outnumbered, so aimed to attack only detached Coalition forces, trying to avoid battle with the main enemy forces.

Blücher’s army retreated about 6 miles to Trannes, where, by luck rather than planning, it contacted Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia. The French had initially pursued Blücher, but halted at La Rothiere, about 3half way between Brienne and Trannes, on 30 January. Napoleon, according to David Chandler, ‘uncharacteristically bided his time.’[1] Heavy snow restricted French reconnaissance, meaning that Napoleon did not realise that he was in danger of being attacked by both the two main Coalition armies

Blücher and Schwarzenberg decided to attack Napoleon on 1 February. Blücher was given command of 53,000 men, with the corps of Prince Fabian von Osten-Sacken and Count Zakhar Olsufiev being reinforced by two corps of Schwarzenberg’s army. Prince Karl Phillip von Wrede’s 26,000 Bavarians were to threaten the French left, with 34,000 Russians under Prince Mikhail Barclay de Tolly being held in reserve.

About 6,000 of the reserves would be committed, giving the Coalition 85,000 men in the forthcoming battle against 45,000 Frenchmen and 128 guns.[2]

F. Loraine Petre argues that ‘it is almost inconceivable’ that Napoleon would have intended to fight defensively on an open plain when he was heavily outnumbered, especially in cavalry.[3] He was uncertain of the enemy’s position and manoeuvres, but suspected that they intended to pin him at Brienne and attack at Troyes. He therefore ordered a retreat towards Troyes.

Around noon Napoleon received reports that suggested that the Blücher’s army was advancing on La Rothiere from Trannes. He decided that he had no choice but to stand and fight, even on unsuitable ground. He recalled Marshal Michel Ney’s corps, which had already started to retreated, but for now there were only 34,000 French troops on the battlefield.[4]

Blücher’s attack began around 1 pm. General Étienne Nansouty’s cavalry charged Russian artillery that was firing high, killing a large number of gunners. Sacken brought up his infantry, but a brief pause in the snowfall revealed them to the French artillery and cavalry. Nansouty charged and his troopers initially swept away the enemy cavalry, but were then caught in the flank by fresh cavalry and defeated, with the loss of 24 guns.

An immediate Coalition advance might then have broken the French centre, but the snow obscured Blücher’s view of the action, and the chance was gone by the time that he learned of it.

The French were able to resist Coalition attacks until around 4 pm, when their left began to buckle under attacks from Wrede’s troops, which took the village of Chaumesnil. In the centre Barclay’s fresh troops almost took La Rothiere. Napoleon, faced with two simultaneous crises, reacted quickly, organising two counter-attacks. La Rothiere was retaken, whilst a desperate fight took place on the French left.

The arrival of Wrede meant that the French were beaten, and Napoleon ordered a retreat to Lesmont. Aided by dusk and the snowfall, he was able to break contact all along the line.

Both sides lost about 6,000 dead, wounded and prisoners, with about 2,000 Frenchmen being captured. The French also lost 50-60 guns.[5]

A lack of intelligence about the enemy and poor weather meant Napoleon had been forced to fight a superior enemy, something that he had wanted to avoid. Chandler says that ‘there is little but praise’ for the way in which he fought the battle well and extracted his army.[6] The Coalition might have won a victory that would have decided the campaign had Blücher been given full control of the reserves. However, Petre notes that the Austrians did not want ‘a really decisive victory’ as they had not ruled out a political solution that would leave Napoleon in his throne.[7]


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 960.

[2] F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), p. 30.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 32.

[5] Ibid., p. 37.

[6] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 964.

[7] Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814, p. 37.

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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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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 (1) Prelude – Early October 1813.

War between France and Austria, Prussia, Russia and Sweden recommenced on 16 August 1813 after the expiry of the Truce of Pläswitz. Napoleon was unable to inflict a decisive defeat on the Coalition opposing him. Their strategy of attempting to avoid battle with the main French army, commanded by the Emperor himself, whilst attacking detached French corps was successful.

Napoleon’s strategic situation rapidly deteriorated despite his victory in the largest battle of the early stages of the campaign, at Dresden on 26-27 August, but failed to turn his victory into a rout. His subordinates were defeated at Gross Beeren on 23 August, Katzbach on 26 August, Kulm on 30 August and Dennewitz on 6 September.

The Coalition started the campaign with three armies: the Army of Bohemia under the Austrian Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg; the Prussian General Gebhard von Blücher’s Army of Silesia; and the Army of North Germany under Bernadotte, the Crown Prince of Sweden and formerly one of Napoleon’s Marshals. Bernadotte’s wife had once been engaged to Napoleon, and her sister was married to the Emperor’s brother Joseph. A fourth, the Army of Poland under the Russian Russian General Count Levin August Bennigsen, was formed during the campaign.

Bennigsen reinforced Schwarzenberg in the south in late September. This allowed Blücher to move north towards Bernadotte, although the two commanders operated independently of each other. Blücher was impetuous and Bernadotte cautious. Schwarzenberg was now to attack towards Leipzig instead of Dresden in order to threaten Napoleon’s lines of communication westwards.

By early October Napoleon had taken up a position near Leipzig with his main army. He had decided to attack north and exploit Blücher and Bernadotte’s lack of co-operation to destroy first one, then the other. He would then turn south to deal with Schwarzenberg.

Napoleon, however, decided on 7 October, after two days consideration, not to concentrate all his forces in the north. He felt that he could not abandon Dresden. It was the capital of Saxony, his last German ally, and it might be an important base in the later operations in the south. However, he first needed all available troops to win in the north. David Chandler says that:

‘This decision was probable the most fateful one of the entire campaign; by disregarding his own principles of concentrating every possible man before battle and of ignoring all secondary (i.e. political) considerations, Napoleon was compromising his chances of success – fatally, as it ultimately proved.’[1]

On 8 October France’s ally Bavaria agreed to change sides in return for a guarantee of her continued sovereignty and independence, although it did not declare war on France on 14 October.

Napoleon moved north, but his tired, hungry and inexperienced conscripts could not march as quickly as his armies had done in the past, allowing the Army of Silesia time to withdraw. Bernadotte wanted to retreat north across the Elbe, but Blücher moved west towards the River Saale, narrowly escaping Napoleon’s army.

Napoleon could have moved north towards Berlin, but would the risk losing Leipzig  to Schwarzenberg. He could move south, but Schwarzenberg would withdraw, and Leipzig would be threatened from the north. Napoleon therefore remained in a central position from 10-14 October.

Schwarzenberg was advancing from the south, but slowly: he took two and a half weeks to move 70 miles. Blücher thought that he and Bernadotte should move south to join with Schwarzenberg near Leipzig. Bernadotte was reluctant, so Blücher moved his army on its own, with Bernadotte eventually following. Chandler and Michael Leggiere both argue that Bernadotte’s hesitancy left Napoleon an escape route from Leipzig.[2]

Early on 14 October Napoleon ordered his army to move to Leipzig. As the Emperor entered the city at noon on 14 October he heard the sounds of cannons. This was a large but indecisive cavalry battle at Liebertwolkwitz. The main action would begin on 16 October, and would be decisive.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 917.

[2] Ibid., p. 919; M. V. Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), p. 265.

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The Battle of Katzbach 26 August 1813

Prince Gebhardt Blücher’s Army of Silesia, comprising Prussian and Russian troops, began to advance towards Saxony on 13 August 1813, three days before the armistice between France and the Coalition of Austria, Prussia, Russia and Sweden expired. Blücher justified his move into the neutral zone established by the Truce of Pläswitz on the grounds that the French had committed several minor breaches of the armistice

The Coalition’s Trachenberg Plan stated that its armies should avoid battle with the main French body, commanded by Napoleon, but should seek battle with isolated enemy corps. By August 21 Blücher realised that he was advancing on Napoleon, so withdrew.

Napoleon had created the Army of the Bober, commanded by Marshal Jacques MacDonald to guard his left flank. MacDonald’s orders were to push Blücher back to Jauer, and then pin his army in Silesia.

On 26 August MacDonald, believing that Blücher was still retreating, crossed the River Katzbach in pursuit. Blücher, however, realising that he was not facing the main French army, had decided to take the offensive in accordance with both his natural desire to attack and the stipulations of the Trachenberg Plan. The two armies both thought that the other was on the defensive, so both were surprised when they encountered each other advancing.

MacDonald’s army, consisting of III, V and XI Corps and II Cavalry Corps, was widely spread, and poor roads slowed down its advance. MacDonald detached 12,000 men from V and XI Corps to cover his right flank, which was not threatened, and ordered his largest force, III Corps, to cross the Katzbach at Liegnitz and attack the enemy’s right flank at Jauer. The rest of his army was supposed to pin the Coalition forces in place.[1]

General Joseph Souham, who had taken over III Corps from Marshal Michel Ney because Napoleon did not want to have two Marshals with the same army, claimed that the Liegnitz crossing was impassable because of heavy rain, although General Fabian von Osten-Sacken’s Russian corps managed to cross there two days later.

Souham decided to move back towards the rest of MacDonald’s army, but found itself in a traffic jam. Only one of its four divisions managed to cross the river in time to play a role in the battle, and it had to leave its artillery behind.

Once the French had crossed the Katzbach they had to climb about 75m up a steep and heavily wooded slope to a featureless plateau. Dominic Lieven notes that they had to use a path that is still difficult by car in muddy or icy conditions.[2]

On the plateau the French encountered the 55,000 Coalition troops of Count Johann Ludwig Yorck’s Prussian Corps and Sacken’s Russians, who were also advancing. Only about 27,000 out of 67,000 French troops available made it to the plateau by 2pm, when the fighting began.

The heavy rain obscured visibility. Blücher sent Karl von Müffling, his quartermaster-general, forward on a reconnaissance mission. Müffling later wrote that:

‘I was mounted on a mouse-coloured horse, and had on a grey cloak, so that in the pouring rain I was not visible at 100 paces.’[3]

The rain meant that muskets could not be fired and had to be used as clubs, so the fighting was mainly hand to hand. The French were forced to retreat, with many being drowned as they tried to cross the Katzbach, which had risen because of the rain.

Further south French troops under General Jacques-Alexander-Bernard Lauriston attacked Coalition forces under Count Alexandre de Langeron, a French emigré in Russian service. Langeron had fewer infantry  but more cavalry, and was in a strong defensive position. However, he initially gave ground, until he was sent reinforcements at 4pm. He then counter-attacked and recaptured most of the ground lost.

F. Lorraine Petre says that the Coalition captured at least 12-14,000 prisoners and 36 guns. Their own casualties were not recorded, but were heavy.[4] Wikipedia gives casualties of 15,000 French and 4,000 Coalition troops. Lieven notes that the French defeat at the Katzbach was turned into ‘catastrophe’ by the pursuit.[5]  It lasted until the first week in September, by when MacDonald’s army was back in Saxony and had lost 35,000 men.[6]

Langeron, who had been dilatory in the battle, performed well in the pursuit. Blücher gave great credit to Sacken for the victory at the Katzbach. He was promoted by the Tsar and cheered by Yorck’s Prussian troops.


[1] Troops strengths are from F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), pp. 252-53.

[2] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 379.

[3] Quoted in Ibid., p. 381.

[4] Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign, p. 256.

[5] Lieven, Russia, p. 385.

[6] Ibid., p. 388.

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The End of the Truce of Pläswitz, 16 August 1813

Napoleon signed a truce with Prussia and Russia at Pläswitz on 4 June 1813. Negotiations failed to produce peace terms acceptable to both sides, and by the end of June it was clear that hostilities would resume once the armistice expired on 16 August. By then Austria and Sweden had joined the Sixth Coalition against France.

Both sides spent the brief period of peace preparing for war. The Coalition decided at Trachenberg to divide their forces into three armies, which would be positioned in an arc round Napoleon’s centre of operations in Saxony. Each would attempt to attack detached French corps, but would retreat if approached by Napoleon’s main army. The other two armies would then threaten the French flanks and lines of communication. The objective was to divide and wear the French down without fighting a major battle.

The three armies were the Army of Bohemia under the Austrian Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg, with 230,000 Austrians, Prussians and Russians; the 95,000 Prussians and Russians of the Prussian General Gebhard von Blücher’s Army of Silesia; and the Army of North Germany of 110,000 North Germans, Prussians, Russians and Swedes under Bernadotte, the Crown Prince of Sweden. A fourth, the Army of Poland, with 60,000 men under the Russian General Count Levin August Bennigsen was being formed. [1]

Each army contained a mixture of nationalities in order to stop Napoleon knocking one country out of the war by concentrating on it and to be sure that all acted in the interests of the Coalition.

Smaller forces took the Coalition field army to a total of 512,000 soldiers, and there were another 143,000 troops in reserve and conducting sieges and 112,000 garrisoning fortresses. It was opposed by a French field army of about 450,000, with 77,000 more in garrisons.[2]

It is not clear who was responsible for this plan. Michael Leggiere attributes it to Count Josef Radetzky von Radetz, Schwarzenberg’s chief of the staff, but notes that several other claimed the credit.[3]

Dominic Lieven claims that it was mainly the work of General Karl von Toll, a close adviser to the Tsar Alexander I of Russia, although he had discussed it at length with Radetzky and Schwarzenberg.[4]

F. Loraine Petre says that the original version was the work of Toll, Bernadotte and Colonel Karl von dem Knesebeck, a close adviser to King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia, with some input from others. It required only the Army of Silesia to automatically avoid a major battle. This was necessary because of its small size and Blücher’s impetuosity. Toll wanted to take the offensive against Napoleon.

Petre states that Radetzky modified it by making it require all of the armies to refuse a major battle. This, Petre argues, shows that the Austrians were still trying to conduct an 18th century war of manoeuvre rather than trying to win a decisive victory.[5]

Schwarzenberg was the Coalition commander-in-chief, but Lieven notes that his powers were limited. He lacked confidence in his military skills, especially in comparison to Napoleon. Alexander and Friedrich Wilhelm were at his headquarters, meaning that Russian and Prussian generals, including Blücher, could go over his head and appeal to their monarch. Bernadotte, effectively a head of state because of the Swedish king’s poor health, paid little heed to Schwarzenberg.

Despite this, Lieven argues that Schwarzenberg was the best choice for the job. The C-in-C had to be Austrian, because of geography and the size of its contribution to the Coalition army. Lieven compares him to General Dwight Eisenhower in World War II in that both had the diplomatic skills to smooth over disputes between their egotistical subordinates.[6]

Napoleon’s initial plan was to capture Berlin, which he believed would demoralise the Prussians and force the Russians to withdraw to the east and away from the Austrians. It would encourage his German allies to remain loyal, reduce the odds against him and relieve besieged French garrisons on the Oder and Vistula.

Napoleon wanted to punish both his former ally Prussia and his former subordinate Bernadotte for turning on him. Marshal Frederic-Auguste Marmont said that:

‘Passion prompted him to act quickly against Prussia. He desired the first cannon shots to be fired against Berlin, and that a startling and terrible vengeance should immediately follow the renewal of hostilities.’[7]

Marshal Nicolas Oudinot was ordered to advance on Berlin from Saxony with 67,000 men and 216 guns. A further 37,500 men and 94 guns under Marshal Louis Nicolas Davout would march from Hamburg to Berlin. The two forces would be linked by 9,000 troops under General Jean Baptiste Girard at Magdeburg and General Jan Dombrowski’s 5,000 Poles and Wittenberg.

Napoleon ordered Oudinot to capture Berlin by 22 August. Oudinot was not an obvious choice for the job, and tried to refuse the command on the grounds of ill health, but the Emperor declined his request. Leggiere suggests that Napoleon chose him over better generals on the grounds of loyalty.[8] David Chandler contends that Marshal Nicolas Soult was first choice, but had to be sent to Spain after the disastrous French defeat at Vitoria.[9]

Napoleon originally intended to keep his other 300,000 men around Dresden, but he later decided to form 100,000 into the Army of the Bober under Marshal Jacques MacDonald. It was to operate in Silesia in order to prevent Blücher threatening Oudinot’s flank or Napoleon’s lines of communication.[10]

Dresden was Napoleon’s centre of operations and main supply base. He stated that:

‘What is important to me is to avoid being cut off from Dresden and the Elbe. I will care little if I am cut off from France.’[11]

David Chandler argues that the French had better officers and artillery. Both sides had multi-national forces, but Napoleon’s infantry, unlike that of his enemy, had homogeneous training and equipment. The main French disadvantage was the poor quality of their cavalry, which had not recovered from the huge horse casualties of the Russian Campaign of 1812.[12]

When Napoleon his marshals of his plan Marmont objected to the division of forces into two separate groups. He told the Emperor 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.’[13]

Leggiere notes that Marmont would soon be proved to be correct.[14]


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 900-1.

[2] F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), p. 170.

[3] M. V. Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), p. 126.

[4] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 369.

[5] Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign, pp. 181-84.

[6] Lieven, Russia, pp. 367-69.

[7] Quoted in Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin, p. 135.

[8] Ibid., pp. 135-36.

[9] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 902.

[10] Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign, p. 189.

[11] Quoted in Chandler, Campaigns, p. 902.

[12] Ibid., p. 901.

[13] Quoted in Ibid., p. 903; Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin, p. 136; and Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign, p. 178.

[14] Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin, p. 137.

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The Battle of Lützen 2 May 1813

By April 1813 Napoleon had rebuilt his army, but was at war with Prussia and Russia. His field forces in Germany consisted of the 121,000 strong Army of the River Main, 58,000 men in the Army of the Elbe, 20,000 troops in the detached I Corps, command by Marshal Louis Nicolas Davout, and 14,000 cavalry under General Horace Sebastiani. On 25 April they were faced by only 110,000 Russians and Prussians.[1]

However, the French were weak in cavalry. The shortage of light cavalry meant that Napoleon lacked intelligence about the enemy’s strength, positions and manoeuvres. Advancing French columns were harassed by enemy light cavalry because there were not enough French horsemen to protect them.

Napoleon’s initial plan was to advance on Berlin. His northern flank would be protected by the fortresses of Torgau, Wittenberg, Magdeburg and Hamburg and the southern one by the Army of the Elbe and I Corps.

He would turn the flank of the enemy army and relieve the besieged fortresses of Danzig, Thorn and Modlin on the Vistula. This would release 50,000 more troops for his field army, threaten the Russian line of communication and intimidate the German princes into supporting France.

David Chandler notes that Napoleon did not implement this plan for a number of reasons: it would require 300,000 men; he was doubtful of the quality of the troops that he did have; his German allies, Bavaria and Saxony, were reluctant; and he did not have enough troops to protect his communications against an enemy advance in the Dresden area.[2]

The Allies concentrated on the Leipzig-Dresden area of Saxony. This covered their communications back to Russia and to Austria, but left Prussia exposed. They had too few troops to protect both, so concentrated on the more important area.

Some Prussians wanted to attack, but Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, the Russian commander was cautious. Dominic Lieven comments that even the ‘ever-aggressive [Gebhard von] Blücher’ remembered that in 1805 the Austro-Russians had attacked before the Prussians were ready and had been defeated at Austerlitz.[3]

Kutuzov died on 28 April. He was replaced by Prince Ludwig Pyotr Wittgenstein, described by Lieven as being ‘[i]n many ways the most suitable candidate.’[4] He had won more victories than any other Russian general in 1812, spoke German and French and was popular with the Prussians. However, he was junior to two of the Russian corps commanders, Alexander Tormasov and Mikhail Miloradovich.

Consequently Wittgenstein was appointed to command only Blücher’s Prussians and Ferdinand Wintzingerode’s Russian corps. Tormasov and Miloradovich received their orders from Tsar Alexander, ‘sometimes without [Wittgenstein’s] knowledge’ according to F. Loraine Petre.[5]

Napoleon ordered his troops to cross the River Saale on 1 May. They encountered opposition, notably at Weissenfels, where Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bessiéres was killed, but the crossing was completed. Marshal Michel Ney’s III Corps occupied Lützen in order to protect the southern flank of an advance on Leipzig.

At 4 am on 2 May Napoleon told Ney to send out strong patrols towards Zwenkau and Pegau, and to occupy Lützen and the villages of Kaja, Rahna, Gross Görschen and Klein Görschen, which lay along a ridge. Ney did not send out the patrols, which would have found the enemy army, and kept three divisions at Lützen.Wittgenstein, learning that there was only a weak French force at Kaja, decided to attack it. His troops were supposed to start moving at 1 am and be in position by 7 am. Their columns became mixed up in the dark, and were not in position until 11 am.

The Allies could see only 2,000 French troops, so Wittgenstein ordered the Blücher’s Prussian cavalry to charge them at 11:45 am. However, they were shocked to find themselves faced by two divisions. The French were also surprised, because they had not sent out patrols.

Blücher  waited until artillery could be brought up, allowing the French time to deploy.  General Jean-Baptiste Girard’s division occupied and held the village of Starsiedl, but General Joseph Souham’s division was forced to withdraw from Gross Görschen.

Napoleon and the main French army were marching on Leipzig. Ney had been with Napoleon, but hurried back to his command on hearing the gunfire. He ordered a counter-attack , which led to a desperate action around the villages and along the ridge.

Napoleon quickly devised a plan to envelop the enemy. Ney’s III Corps should hold, with Marshal Auguste Marmont’s VI Corps coming up to support its right flank. Further to the French right, General Henri-Gatien Bertrand’s IV Corps would threaten the Allied left flank. Marshal Jacques MacDonald’s XI Corps would attack the Allied right. The Imperial Guard would reinforce the centre.

Napoleon reached the battlefield at 2:30 pm. He rode amongst his troops, encouraging them, boosting their morale and leading them back into the attack. Chandler quotes Marmont as saying that ‘[t]his was probably the day, of his whole career, in which Napoleon incurred the greatest personal danger on the field of battle.’[6]

Despite appeals from his commanders, Napoleon refused to commit the Guard too soon. The Allies were hampered by a wound to Blücher and the slow arrival of Russian reserves. The Tsar held back his Guards, apparently thinking that the battle was going well and wanting to personally lead them in the decisive attack.

The French flanking  forces were in position by 5:30 pm. At 6:00 pm the attack was launched by XI Corps on the French left, the Imperial Guard and VI Corps in the centre and IV Corps on the right. The assault, with heavy artillery support, threw the Allies back.

The French won the battle, but Chandler notes that Napoleon needed two more hours to make his victory complete. He lacked the cavalry to pursue the enemy in order to turn a victory into a rout.[7]

Petre and Lieven both argue that the delay in the initial Allied attack in the end disadvantaged the French. An earlier start to the battle would have meant that Napoleon and his main body of troops were closer to the action when it began. They would have arrived earlier and would have had more time to complete their victory. Better reconnaissance by Ney would also have allowed Napoleon to move earlier.[8]

The battle showed that Napoleon and his command system could still react far more quickly and flexibility to battlefield developments than his enemies. He had won a victory, but lack of time and cavalry meant that it was not a decisive one, and the French suffered heavy casualties.

Chandler estimates that there were 115,000 French and 97,000 Allied troops in the vicinity, altthough not all of them engaged in combat. He reckons that 20,000 French and 18,000 Allied troops were killed or wounded.[9] Charles Esdaile argues that the French casualties were high because the inexperience of their troops meant that they had to use ‘clumsy and unsophisticated’ tactics.[10]

The Allies retired towards Dresden. An action took place at Colditz on 5 May between French troops under Prince Eugène and the Russian rearguard, commanded by Miloradovich. The Allies did not stop in Dresden and failed to destroy its bridges. Napoleon reached it on 8 May. Two days later the King of Saxony declared for Napoleon.

The Allied retreat ended on 13 Mat at Bautzen, a strong defensive position. They were reinforced by another 13,000 Russian troops under Prince Mikhail Barclay de Tolly.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 874-75.

[2] Ibid., p. 875.

[3] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 311.

[4] Ibid., p. 313.

[5] F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), p. 58.

[6] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 884.

[7] Ibid., pp. 886-87.

[8] Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814, p. 315; Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813, p. 85.

[9] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 1120.

[10] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 501.

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