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The Fall of Paris 30-31 March 1814 and Napoleon’s Abdication.

Napoleon retreated to St Dizier after being defeated by Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia at Arcis-sur-Aube on 20-21 March 1814. After some prevarication the Coalition decided that Schwarzenberg’s army and Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia should advance on Paris.

Captured dispatches revealed that Napoleon intended to threaten the Coalition lines of supply back to the Rhine. They also indicated that the morale of the French army and it commanders was low, and that the Paris police chief feared that its population might not stay loyal to Napoleon if the enemy approached the capital.

General Ferdinand von Winzengerode was ordered to pursue Napoleon with 8,000 cavalry.[1] He was to trick the Emperor into thinking that both Coalition armies were following him, and to make sure that the Coalition command knew where Napoleon was.

The Army of Bohemia defeated the French corps of Marshals Auguste de Marmont and Édouard Mortier at La Fère Champenoise on 25 March, leaving the road to Paris open. Napoleon’s only chance of holding his capital was to return to it. Dominic Lieven argues that he would have been ‘likely to galvanise and coordinate the defence, and overawe potential traitors in the city’ even if he had rushed there on his own, without bringing reinforcements to the garrison.[2]

Winzengerode was defeated by Napoleon on 26 March, losing 1,500 men and 9 guns.[3] However, Napoleon did not learn of La Fère Champenoise and the threat to Paris until the next day. He began to force march his army towards Paris, but it was too late to get there in time.

Napoleon’s Empress Marie-Louise and their son, the King of Rome, left Paris on 29 March. They were followed by Napoleon’s brother Joseph and much of the government the next day.

By the evening on 29 March the Coalition had 107,000 men outside Paris. Marmont had 12,000 regulars and Mortier 11,000, but many of the 19,000 strong garrison were poorly trained National Guardsmen.[4]

The heights of Montmartre in the north and Romainville in the centre and the stone buildings of the city benefitted the defender. However, little had been done to fortify the city. F. Loraine Petre argues that Napoleon did not want ‘the people to think that he, the conqueror of Europe, had to look to earthworks for the defence of his capital.’[5]

Many of the Coalition troops were not ready to attack in the morning, but General Nikolai Raevsky’s Russian corps beat Marmont’s corps to the village of Romainville in the morning and also took Pantin. They held these against French counter attacks, but the Coalition were unable to make further progress until 3 pm, when all their corps were in position.

The French were forced back to Montmartre and Marmont requested an armistice, which was agreed at 2 am on 31 March. The Coalition had suffered 8,000 casualties in taking Paris.[6]

Napoleon had force marched his army as far as Troyes by 30 March, but it was too exhausted to continue further. He pressed on, initially with just two cavalry squadrons, and then with only five officers in light carriages. Early on 31 March he learnt of the surrender of Paris, and returned to Fontainebleau.

The Emperor had 36,000 troops with him on 1 April, rising to 60,000 two days later. He wanted to fight on, but the Coalition had 145,000 men in Paris, making his position impossible.[7]

The Coalition, which had previously offered to allow Napoleon to keep his throne if he accepted France’s 1792 frontiers, had not yet decided whether or not to restore the Bourbons. Their main objective was to install a regime that would be accepted by the French population and would ensure peace.

One possibility was a regency for Napoleon’s infant son, but this was risky whilst Napoleon was alive. On 1 April the Coalition announced that it would not deal with him or any of his family. The next day the French Senate, ‘stage-managed’ by Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, Napoleon’s former foreign minister, deposed Napoleon and invited King Louis XVIII to return to France.[8]

Napoleon, informed by his Marshals that he had no choice, abdicated on 4 April, initially in favour of his son. The Coalition refused to accept this, and he renounced the throne for himself and his heirs two days later.

On 16 April the Treaty of Fontainebleau was ratified. Napoleon retained his title of Emperor with sovereignty over the island of Elba, a pension of two million francs per annum and a 600 man guard. He departed for Elba on 28 April.

Lieven argues that giving Napoleon Elba was a ‘serious blunder.’ He notes, however, that Tsar Alexander wanted to be ‘generous to a defeated foe.’ The British were not prepared to allow Napoleon his preference of living in Britain, whilst the terms of Marmont’s surrender prevented ‘any constraint on Napoleon’s freedom.’[9]

As a general Napoleon fought a very skilful military campaign in 1814, but as a statesman he left himself with an impossible task. He rejected several offers of terms that were far better than he could have obtained by fighting on as he was unwilling to accept a peace that he had not won on the battlefield.

France was exhausted and outnumbered, making the outcome of the campaign a foregone conclusion. Napoleon was not strong enough to win a decisive victory and could not have afforded a major defeat. He was beaten in the campaign even without one.

 

[1] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), pp. 518-19.

[2] Ibid., p. 511.

[3] F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), p. 195.

[4] Ibid., p. 199.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lieven, Russia, p. 515.

[7] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 1001.

[8] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 528.

[9] Lieven, Russia, pp. 518-19.

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The Battle of La Fère Champenoise 25 March 1814.

Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia defeated Napoleon’s army at Arcis-sur-Aube on 20-21 March 1814, but did not immediately pursue the retreating enemy. Napoleon reached St Dizier on 23 March.

On 22 March a patrol of Cossacks from Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia captured a French courier who was carrying a letter from Napoleon to his Empress, Marie-Louise. It revealed that the Emperor planned to attack Schwarzenberg’s communications in order to draw the enemy away from Paris.

Blücher sent a copy of the captured letter to the main Coalition headquarters with the Army of Bohemia. A conference between Schwarzenberg, Tsar Alexander, King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia and their staffs on 23 March decided that the two Coalition armies should unite and pursue Napoleon.

The Coalition commanders then received further captured dispatches. They showed that the morale of the French army and it commanders was low, and that the Paris police chief feared that its population might not stay loyal to Napoleon if the enemy approached the capital. These convinced Alexander that the Coalition armies should advance on Paris.

On 24 March the Tsar persuaded Friedrich Wilhelm and Schwarzenberg that this was the right thing to do. Moving to a rich region that it yet to see fighting would make it far easier to supply the Coalition armies than would be the case if they followed Napoleon through an area that had already been ravaged by war. Paris was far more important politically to Napoleon than Berlin, Vienna or Moscow were to his enemies.

General Ferdinand von Winzengerode was ordered to pursue Napoleon with 8,000 cavalry. He was to trick the Emperor into thinking that both Coalition armies were following him, and to make sure that the Coalition command knew where Napoleon was. The rest of the Coalition armies were to advance on Paris

The Coalition cavalry advance guard under General Pyotr Pahlen and the Crown Prince of Württemberg encountered the corps of Marshal Auguste de Marmont and Édouard Mortier at La Fère Champenoise at about 8 am on 25 March. Initially 5,700 Coalition cavalry and 36 guns, later reinforced by 2,500 more Austrian cavalry, faced 12,300 French infantry, 4.350 cavalry and 68 guns.[1]

The French cavalry were driven off the field and two light infantry regiments were forced to surrender. Marmont and Mortier could see that there were large numbers of enemy troops advancing on them, so retreated the rest of their troops in good order until about 2 pm. The Russian heavy cavalry of General Nikolai Preradovich’s 1st Cuirassier Division then arrived, bringing the Coalition force up to 12,000 men, and a heavy rain and hail storm started.

With rain and hail blowing into their faces, the French infantry were unable to fire their muskets. Two squares gave way under fire from Russian horse artillery, and many of the French infantry panicked and ran.

At the same time the sounds of another battle behind the Coalition cavalry could be heard. Neither side knew what this meant. Was it Napoleon marching to the rescue of Marmont and Mortier? In fat two French National Guard divisions, escorting a large convoy of guns and supply wagons, were being attacked by two cavalry divisions from the Army of Silesia.

The 5,000 inexperienced French troops, commanded by Generals Michel-Marie Pacthod and François-Pierre-Joseph Amey, fought gallantly against Baron Korff and General Ilarion Vasilchikov’s 4,000 cavalry and three horse artillery batteries. They had to abandon their supply wagons as they retreated in square. Eventually their retreat brought them into contact with the main Coalition cavalry force. Most of the Frenchmen were killed or forced to surrender.

The National Guardsmen fought very bravely, but the French suffered very heavy losses at La Fère Champenoise. Dominic Lieven estimates that they lost half of 23,000 men and almost all their guns in a fight with 16,000 Coalition cavalry.[2] F. Loraine Petre says that the French lost over 10,000 men killed, wounded and captured and 60 guns against 2,000 Coalition casualties.[3]

 

[1] Unless otherwise stated troop strengths are from D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), pp. 509-11.

[2] Ibid., p. 511.

[3] F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), p. 192.

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The Battle of Laon 9-10 March 1814.

Napoleon won a pyrrhic victory over Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia at Craonne on 7 March 1814. The French held the battlefield at the end of the day, but suffered more casualties than they could afford.

Napoleon thought that he had fought Blücher’s rearguard, and that the Army of Silesia was heading north. He realised that he could not win a major battle against it. However, he believed that if he pursued it and inflicted another defeat on its rearguard he could then turn south to deal with defeated Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia, which was advancing on Paris.

Blücher was not withdrawing, but had drawn up his army in a strong position just south of Laon. He placed the corps of Generals Friedrich von Kleist and Johann Ludwig Yorck along a steep ridge to the east of Laon. Some of their troops were hidden on a reverse slope. General Friedrich von Bülow’s corps held the centre, in front of Laon, and General Ferdinand von Winzengerode’s corps was positioned on flatter ground to the west. The corps of Prince Fabien von Osten-Sacken and Count Alexandre de Langeron were held in reserve.

Blücher had 85,000 men and 150 guns. Napoleon had only 37,000 troops with him. [1] Another 10,000 under Marshal Auguste de Marmont had been detached from the main body in order to prevent Blücher from retreating to Rheims. A mixture of bad weather, swampy terrain, Russian cavalry and inertia by Marmont meant that the Emperor was unsure of Marmont’s location.

On 9 March Napoleon’s leading troops, commanded by Marshals Édouard Mortier and Michel Ney, encountered the enemy. The Emperor launched a series of attacks. Blücher thought wrongly that Napoleon had 90,000 men, so feared that this attack was intended to pin his army whilst Napoleon enveloped it. He consequently acted very cautiously.

Marmont’s VI Corps arrived at about 2 pm. The troops and their commander were tired, and halted for the night after taking the village of Athies. Marmont failed to secure the narrow Festieux defile to his rear.

By the early evening reconnaissance reports had informed Blücher of the enemy’s weakness. He therefore ordered Yorck and Kleist’s corps, supported by Langeron, Sacken and cavalry, to attack Marmont.

VI Corps was caught foraging and thrown back. Kleist’s corps cut the Rheims road, and Coalition cavalry headed for the Festieux defile. It appeared that VI Corps’ line of retreat would be cut, resulting in its destruction.

However, complete disaster was averted by the actions of Colonel Charles Nicolas Fabvier. Marmont had sent him with 1,000 men and two guns to link up with Napoleon. On hearing the sound of the guns Fabvier retraced his steps and managed to reopen the Rheims road. At the Festieux defile the Coalition cavalry were beaten off by 125 Old Guardsmen who had been escorting a convoy.

The bulk of VI Corps were able to escape, but Marmont lost a third of his men, 45 guns and 120 caissons. David Chandler says that the whole French army was put at risk by ‘Marmont’s irresponsible conduct…it is a wonder that Napoleon left him in command of his formation.’[2]

Napoleon did not learn of VI Corps’ fate until 5 am the next day, 10 March. He decided to hold his position in order to take the pressure off Marmont. Blücher intended to aggressively attack that day, which Chandler and Dominic Lieven agree would have resulted in a major French defeat.[3]

However, the 72-year-old Blücher was taken ill overnight. His chief of staff General August von Gneisenau took command, but he lacked Blücher’s dynamism and confidence. Fighting on 10 March was therefore confined to skirmishing, and Napoleon was able to extract his army after dark, and retreat to Soissons. He still suffered a significant defeat, losing 6,000 men compared to 4,000 from the numerically larger enemy.


[1] Unlesss otherwise stated troop numbers are from D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 989-91.

[2] Ibid., p. 990.

[3] Ibid; D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 502.


[1] Unlesss otherwise stated troop numbers are from D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 989-91.

 

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The Battle of Vauchamps 14 February 1814

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for a map of the battlefield.

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, Petre points out that

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 976.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

[4] Ibid., p. 932.

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

[6] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 935.

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

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The 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 Salamanca, 1812

Wellington‘s Anglo-Portuguese army captured the French held fortress of Badajoz in April 1812 and then moved north to deal with the threat offered by Marshal Auguste Marmont‘s French army to Ciudad Rodrigo, which Wellington had taken in January. Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz  covered the northern and southern routes respectively from Portugal to Spain. An army invading Spain from Portugal had to hold both in order to protect its lines of communication back to Portugal.

River Tagus from the repaired stone bridge towards the position of the French wooden pontoon bridge.

On 12 May 1812 three brigades under General Sir Rowland Hill attacked and destroyed the wooden pontoon bridge that the French had built across the River Tagus at Almaraz. It replaced a stone bridge that had been destroyed during the Talavera campaign in 1809. The loss of the Almaraz bridge greatly lengthened the lines of communication between Marmont’s army in northern Spain and Marshal Nicolas Soult‘s force in the south.

The French had significantly more troops than Wellington in Spain.  According to Jac Weller, he had just over 60,000 men whilst there were over 230,000 French soldiers in Spain. However, the French forces were divided into five armies; Marmont  had 52,000 troops and Soult 54,000.[1]

Wellington had sole command and his superior supply and intelligence systems, British control of the seas and the Spanish guerrillas meant that he could manoeuvre against  either Marmont or Soult. The latter could more easily evade and join up with other French forces, such as the 60,000 men under Marshal Louis Suchet that had just taken Valencia.

Charles Esdaile notes that the defeat of Soult would result in the liberation of Andalusia, but that this would have no impact on the north. Defeat of Marmont in the north would force the French to withdraw from Andalusia.[2]

Wellington therefore determined to attack Marmont. He did not have control over Spanish troops at this stage,, but his prestige gave him enough influence to persuade the Spanish to undertake operations aimed at tying down the rest of the French forces in Spain.

An Anglo-Portuguese division under Hill was sent south to help General Ballesteros’s army in the south. The threat of invasion of from Naples by from Lord William Bentinck’s British, Neapolitan and Spanish force kept French troops in Catalonia.

Wellington advanced  on Salamanca on 13 June with 48,000 men and 54 guns. Marmont withdrew behind the River Duero, leaving behind a small force, based in three fortified convents. Wellington entered the city on 17 June but took 10 days to subdue the garrison.

Wellington then advanced on the Duero, hoping that Marmont would attack him, and waiting for the Spanish 6th Army to arrive in the French rear.  The 6th did not appear, as its siege of Astorga took longer than expected.

Marmont had only 44,000 men, but Wellington’s inaction convinced him that he could afford the take the initiative despite being slightly outnumbered.  He crossed the Duero on 15 July and forced Wellington back towards Salamanca by trying to outflank him and thus threaten his lines of communication.

Map of the Battle of Salamanca, 22 July 1812. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Battle_of_Salamanca_map.jpg

On 22 July the Anglo-Portuguese army was positioned along a line of low hills, the southern end of which was a hill called the Lesser Arapile. Marmont seized the Greater Arapile, a larger hill a few hundred yards to its south, and attempted to move round Wellington’s left flank. Wellington saw what was happening and re-positioned his army to avoid this.

Marmont now made a mistake. He was convinced that Wellington was too cautious and mistook these movements for a preparation to retreat. Marmont therefore ordered his army to move westwards. Wellington, who had been considering an attack, observed the French becoming strung out threw away a chicken leg that he had been eating and ordered an attack, announcing ‘By God that will do.’[3]

Thomières’s division, leading the French advance, was attacked by Pakenham’s Third Division, which appeared over the crest of a ridge. The French fell back with heavy losses, and Pakenham then advanced on the next French division, that of Maucune. It had formed itself into squares because of the threat from a British cavalry brigade under General John Le Marchant, but had then been attacked by the infantry of  Leith’s Fifth Division, Well disciplined infantry in square were secure against cavalry but had no chance in a firefight with infantry in line.

The Lesser Arapile from the Greater Arapile.

Le Marchant’s cavalry charged into Maucune’s troops as they retreated, and then attacked the third French division, commanded by Taupin. It was also routed. Three out of eight French divisions had now been destroyed.

Thomières and Le Marchant were amongst the dead, whilst Marmont and his second-in-command, General Bonnet, had both been wounded. There is some doubt over the timing of Marmont’s wound; he claimed that it was before Wellington counter-attacked, preventing him responding, whilst his enemies said that it was later.

An attack by Cole’s Fourth Division and Pack’s Portuguese Brigade on the Greater Arapile was repulsed. General Bertrand Clausel, now commanding the French army, thought that this came him an opportunity to counter-attack. Wellington saw the danger and had plenty of reserves, which he moved into position to cover the danger.

Esdaile says that the battle is ‘Known, and for good reason, as “Wellington’s Masterpiece”.’[4] He surprised Thomières and then destroyed Maucune and Brennier’s divisions with an attack in echelon. Wellington was able to mas superior numbers at the decisive point.

Weller argues that Clausel’s counter-attack in ‘conception was brilliant; it was flawlessly executed. Against any other contemporary commanders, excepting only Napoleon and Wellington, Clausel would probably have succeeded in making it a drawn battle.’[5]

The French casualties were 12,000, compared with 5,000 for the Anglo-Portuguese. the French also lost 12 guns and two eagles. Their losses might have been higher had the pursuit been more vigorous, but the pursuers lost cohesion in the night and were exhausted after days of marching and a battle on a very hot day. Some, including Weller, blame the Spanish General de España  for not garrisoning the bridge at Alba de Tormes, but Esdaile says that this had little effect.[6]

Casualties amongst senior officers were high in this battle. The deaths of Thomières and Le Marchant and the wounds suffered by Marmont and Bonnet have already been mentioned. On the French side, General Ferrey was also killed and Clausel was wounded, meaning that the three most senior French officers were wounded. The British General Lord William Beresford was badly wounded and Wellington was badly bruised by a bullet that struck his saddle holster.

The loss of Le Marchant was a particular blow to the British. He had improved the training and tactics of the British cavalry, which was prone to getting out of control when charging. The only British cavalry general of comparable skill was Henry Paget, then Lord Uxbridge and later Lord Anglesey; he had eloped with Wellington’s brother’s wife and the two consequently did not serve together until Waterloo in 1815.

The map in this post is from Wikipedia; link given in the caption. The two photos were taken by myself when I visited the battlefields of Wellington’s campaigns of 1809-12 in a tour led by Ian Fletcher. I have no connection with Ian Fletcher Battlefield Tours except as a satisfied and repeat customer.


[1] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, New ed. (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 207.

[2] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 390.

[3] Quoted in Ibid., p. 395.

[4] Ibid., p. 397.

[5] Weller, Peninsula, p. 223.

[6] Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 397; Weller, Peninsula, p. 225.

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The Siege of Badajoz, 1812.

This follows on from a previous post on Wellington‘s capture of Ciudad Rodrigo in 1812, which also briefly described Napoleonic siege warfare.

All photos in this post were taken by myself when I visited the battlefields of Wellington’s campaigns of 1809-12 in a tour led by Ian Fletcher. I have no connection with Ian Fletcher Battlefield Tours except as a satisfied and repeat customer.

A successful invasion of Spain from Portugal required the invade to hold both Ciudad Rodrigo and Badajoz, which controlled the north and south routes respectively between the two countries.

After taking Cuidad Rodrigo, Wellington moved south to siege Badajoz. He had lacked a proper siege train earlier in his campaigns but now had one consisting of 52 guns, including 12 24 pounders, 16 24 pounder howitzers and 18 Russian 18 pounders, and many other supplies. It arrived at Elvas on 8 March. The Russian guns presented some supply problems as they could not take British 18 pounder shot, but sufficient ammunition for them was found.

Although Wellington now had an adequate siege train, Britain still lacked specialist sappers and miners, meaning that infantrymen had to carry out work that they were not trained to do, and which was tiring and dangerous. The Royal Engineers then consisted solely of officers. They had recently been supplemented by 115 Royal Military Artificers; Ian Fletcher’s history of the siege of Badajoz points out that this was far too few.[1]

Most of Wellington’s army was also at Elvas by 16 March, except two Portuguese brigades that arrived a couple of days later and the 1st Hussars of the King’s German Legion, which were at Ciudad Rodrigo.

Wellington could leave 15,000 men to invest Badajoz and deploy 40,000 against Soult‘s southern French army of 25,000. The risk is was that Marmont moved his army south. Wellington thought that it was likely that Marmont would do so, but not for 3-4 weeks. This meant that he could capture Ciudad Rodrigo, but he could not take his time in doing so. In fact, Napoleon did not allow Marmont to move until 27 March.

Many of the inhabitants of Badajoz, especially the richer ones, had fled, reducing the population from 16,000 before the war to 4,000. General Armand Phillipon, the governor of Badajoz had improved the defences, including building a new lunette, a small fortification, called Fort Picurina and repairing the damage inflicting on Fort San Christobal in the 1811 siege. His garrison of 5,000 men, including 700 non-combatants, was too few.

Walls of Badajoz

The siege began on 16 March. A pontoon bridge was built across the River Guadiana; Wellington did not intend to attack the San Christobal. The first parallel was dug in front of Fort Picurina on the night of 17-18 March.

The attackers were hampered by bad weather and by an aggressive defence. Phillipon conducted frequent sorties and offered bounties to Frenchmen who captured entrenching tools. On 19 March Colonel Richard Fletcher, commanding Wellington’s Royal Engineers, was wounded in a French sortie

On 22 March heavy rain caused the Guadiana to flood, sweeping away the pontoon bridge. The break to communications between the two banks of the river threatened to end the siege, but the weather improved and the bridge was repaired the next day.

Fort Picurina was invested by 5th Division on 24 March and successfully assaulted the next day by men of 3rd and Light Divisions; casualties were heavy. The ladders were too short to scale the walls but were used to bridge ditches. A party of the 88th Foot forced their way through an embrasure and a detachment of the 83rd entered by a salient angle where artillery had damaged the palisades. The siege batteries were able to fire on the bastions by 31 March.

Repaired breach in walls of Badajoz

Wellington wanted to force the garrison to surrender rather than storming the fortress, but Soult’s advance forced him to order the assault for the evening of 5 April. Fletcher, recovered from his wound, said that there were too many obstacles in the two breaches and wanted a third, so the attack was postponed.

The third breach was made by 4 pm the next day and Wellington ordered the attack for 7:30 pm. It was impossible to be ready in time and it was postponed until 10 pm, by when the French had improved the defences. The British made an error in not destroying the counterscarp, or outer wall of the ditch; it should have been blown into the ditch, making it easier to cross.

The French filled the breaches with chevaux de frise, made of sabres, fascines, sandbags, woolpacks, planks studded with 12 inch spikes chained to the ground and explosives.

The main attack on the breaches to the south east was to come from the 4th Division at La Trinidad and the Light Division at Santa Maria. General Sir Thomas Picton‘s 3rd Division was to take the castle by escalade from the east. The 5th Division was to demonstrate against the Pardaleras and, if feasible, escalade the San Vincente. A Guards detachment was to storm the San Roque and Power’s Portuguese Brigade demonstrate against the San Christobal.

Badajoz Castle

The attacks on the breaches were beaten off, with heavy casualties. By 1:30 am Wellington had realised that further assaults were pointless.  He was then informed that Picton had taken the castle. Picton’s initial attacks had failed. He was wounded and command passed to General Sir James Kempt. Kempt was wounded and Picton took command back

An hour after the initial assault Lt-Col Ridge of the 5th led an attack at a point where the wall was a little lower and an embrasure offered some protection. He got onto the wall and his troops followed. Ridge was killed but the British were in the castle. Phillipon had hoped to make his last stand there. Lt McPherson of the 45th lowered the French flag and, in the absence of a British one, raised his tunic on the flagpole.

A French counter-attack, using troops from the San Vicente, failed as more British troops crossed the wall. The British were then able to take the San Vicente.

Walls near Badajoz Castle

Phillipon launched a cavalry charge by around 40 dragoons, which failed. He escaped through the Gate of Las Palmas to San Christobal with about 50 men. A few French troops at the breaches withdrew into houses and continued the fight until dawn, but most dispersed or surrendered.

At 2 am Wellington ordered another attack on the breaches by the 4th and Light Divisions, who crossed them without opposition.  Some fighting continued, but most of the French surrendered.

The British troops now indulged in an orgy of rape, drunkenness and pillage. Most of the victims were Spanish civilians.  3,500 of the 5,000 French garrison were taken prisoner.

Phillipon surrendered on the morning of April 7. Wellington entered Badajoz and received a drunken salute from some of his men. He ordered the erection of a gallows, but it does not appear to have been used.

Juana Maria de Los Dolores de Leon and her sister were rescued by British officers. She married Harry Smith, one of them, and became the Lady Smith after whom the Ladysmith in South Africa is named. Johnny Kincaid, one of Smith’s comrades, claimed in his memoirs that it was him rather than Smith who rescued the girls.

Once the looting had ended the wounded could be cared for. Wellington’s army suffered 5,000 casualties in the siege, 3,000 of them in the assault.

Phillipon fought a good defence but was let down by his superiors. Marmont and Soult became involved in unnecessary actions with local Spanish forces when they should have marched straight to Badajoz.

The Royal Corps of Miners and Sappers was founded on 23 April in order to provide the British Army with specialist troops for siege warfare, but they were not able to make any impact until the siege of San Sebastian in 1813. Even then there were too few of them.

Armand Phillipon escaped, served in Russia and Germany, retired from active service in September 1813 and later made his peace with the Bourbons


[1] Ian Fletcher, In Hell Before Daylight: The Siege and Storming of the Fortress of Badajoz, 16 March – 6 April 1812 (Chalford Stroud: Spellmount, 2008), p. 22. This description of the siege is largely based on this book.

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