Tag Archives: Metternich

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 Truce of Pläswitz 4 June 1813

Napoleon defeated the Russo-Prussian army at Lützen on 2 May and Bautzen on 20-21 May 1813, but neither battle was decisive. He lacked the cavalry to pursue the defeated enemy and turn a victory into a rout, and mistakes by his subordinates, notably Marshal Michel Ney, allowed the Allies to escape a trap at Bautzen.

On 22 May the pursuing French engaged the Allies at Reichenbach.  General Géraud Duroc, who had been Napoleon’s Grand Marshal of the Palace since he became Emperor, was killed. Napoleon, upset at the loss of Duroc and others close to him, ordered the combat to be broken off.

The French, harassed by Cossacks and losing more men to straggling and sickness, were unable to win a decisive victory. The high commands of both sides were arguing amongst themselves. Ney offered his resignation, which was rejected.

The Allied commander, Prince Ludwig Pyotr Wittgenstein, unhappy that Tsar Alexander had passed orders over his head, also offered his resignation, which Alexander accepted on 29 May. The new commander was  Prince Mikhail Barclay de Tolly; he promptly upset the Prussians by proposing to withdraw into Poland.

The Tsar came up with a compromise. The Allies would withdraw to Schweidnitz, which was inside Prussia and allowed them to maintain contact with Austria, which they hoped would join them. However, it meant that they risked being outflanked and trapped against the Austrian border. Schweidnitz had once been strongly fortified, but its defences had not been repaired after being destroyed in 1807.

Napoleon then made what he later described as ‘one of the worst decisions of his life’ when he accepted an Austrian proposal for an armistice.[1] It was signed at Pläswitz on 4 June and would last until 20 July. Peace negotiations would take place during this period.

Napoleon said that he accepted the armistice in order to build up his cavalry and to prepare for a possible Austrian intervention into the war. Additionally his troops were tired and many of them were sick, and he needed to set up fortified supply depots to secure his supplies against enemy action. However, the Allied army was in worse shape. As Dominic Lieven says:

‘In all probability had [Napoleon] continued the spring 1813 campaign for just a few more weeks he  could have secured a very favourable peace…Barclay could not believe his luck.’[2]

David Chandler, whilst noting that the French army was in poor shape , agrees that the Allies were in a worse situation. Napoleon had reached Breslau (now Wroclaw) on 1 June. It was to the north east of Schweidnitz, where the Allies had decided to give battle, so the Emperor was close to a decisive victory when he accepted the armistice. The Allies were even worse off than he realised, and benefitted more than the French did from the armistice.[3]

On 15  June Britain paid Prussia £666,666 and Russia £1,333,334 and offered Austria £500,000 if it would enter the war. On 7 July Sweden agreed to join the Allies. Twelve days later Austria said that it would do the same if Napoleon rejected the proposed terms.

Charles Esdaile notes that Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian Foreign Minister, wanted to maintain a balance of power in Europe between Russian and France as he believed that a decisive victory for either would be disastrous for Austria.[4]

Metternich wanted to arrange a meeting between Napoleon and Alexander, but had to settle for separate meeting with each. Austria, Prussia and Russia, but not Britain, set out their terms in the  Reichenbach Convention on 27 June. They wanted the Duchy of Warsaw and the Confederation of the Rhine to be dissolved, Austria to regain her Illyrian provinces and Prussia to be restored to her 1805 borders,

Metternich put these to Napoleon at Dresden on 30 June, but the Emperor angrily rejected them. F. Loraine Petre contends that neither side expected the negotiations to lead to peace; their ideas of what would be constitute acceptable terms were too far apart.[5] Chandler agrees, suggesting that the terms relayed by Austria ‘smacked of a peace dictated to a vanquished foe’, not a proposal for peace with an enemy that had won two recent victories.[6]

Esdaile takes issue with those who consider the terms offered to Napoleon to be ‘intolerable’, arguing that ‘they were by no means so bad.’[7] He would have retained control over Spain, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the Kingdom of Italy and Naples. Esdaile contends that the big loser from a peace agreement along these lines would have been Britain, which would have achieved none of its war aims.

Esdaile points out that Austria, Prussia, Russia and even Britain were willing to let Napoleon keep his throne. Only Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, the Crown Prince and Regent of Sweden, wanted to remove the Emperor. His motivation was personal, as he thought that he might replace Napoleon on the French throne. Napoleon fought on because he preferred risking all on a military victory to compromise.[8]

Bernadotte had previously been one of Napoleon’s Marshals, before being adopted as heir to the elderly and heirless King Karl XIII of Sweden in 1810. In 1813 he was properly named Crown Prince Karl Johan, but most histories of the Napoleonic Wars call him Bernadotte.

Certainly, Napoleon rejected terms that would have left him as head of a very powerful state; fighting on left him in exile on Elba less than a year later. However, there was little chance of a man who had come to power because of military successes and had won two recent battles accepting such terms.

The Allies requested that the armistice be extended to 16 August, supposedly to allow negotiations to continue, but actually to permit Austria to complete its mobilisation. Napoleon agreed because the French also needed time to be ready to restart hostilities. Talks continued at Prague, but both sides were just playing for time.

[1] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 327.

[2] Ibid.

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

[4] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 504.

[5] F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), p. 160.

[6] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 160.

[7] Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars, pp. 507-8.

[8] Ibid., p. 510.


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