Tag Archives: Kleist

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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