Tag Archives: Napoleonic Wars

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.



Filed under War History

The Battle of Champaubert 10 February 1814.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7] Lieven, Russia, p. 487.

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


Filed under War History

The Battle of Gross Beeren 23 August 1813

The truce signed by France with Prussia and Russia at Pläswitz on 4 June 1813 expired on 16 August 1813. Both sides had spent most of the intervening period planning and preparing for war, with Austria and Sweden joining the Coalition against France.

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. Bernadotte, now the Crown Prince of Sweden, commanded the Army of North Germany of 110,000 North Germans, Prussians, Russians and Swedes

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.

Oudinot had concentrated his army at Baruth by 18 August. His advance started well, and he won an minor engagement at Trebbin on 21 August. There was now a gap between two of Bernadotte’s corps, Friedrich von Tauentzien’s 4th Prussian Corps and Friedrich von Bülow’s 3rd Prussian Corps, and the road to Berlin appeared to be open.

Michael Leggiere notes that Bernadotte feared that he was facing Napoleon himself and lacked confidence in his troops, many of whom were inexperienced, had been retreating and wanted to abandon Berlin.[1] Bülow refused to give up his country’s capital.

After a discussion on the morning of 22 August Bernadotte agreed to remain south of Berlin until he was certain that he faced Napoleon, and redeployed his army accordingly. The Coalition’s Trachenberg Plan was to avoid battle with Napoleon, but to try to defeat detached French corps.

Oudinot’s army was moving along three roads: his own 12th Corps to the west, General Jean-Louis-Ebénézer Reynier’s 7th Corps and General Jean-Toussaint Arrighi’s 3rd Cavalry Corps in the centre and General http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/Henri_Gratien,_Comte_Bertrand4th Corps in the east. They could not easily reinforce each other because of the swamps and forests that separated the three, but the roads along which the 12th and 7th Corps were travelling met at Gross Beeren.

On 22 August Oudinot’s troops forced their way across the Nuthe Canal. There were four crossing points, so Oudinot pinned Thyrow, the strongest, with one of his divisions and sent the rest of the corps against Wilmersdorf. Wietstock was attacked by Reynier’s corps and Jühnsdorff by Bertrand’s corps. The plan, according to Leggiere, ‘worked brilliantly’, and the French took all four crossings.[2]

However, Tauentzien followed Bülow’s advice to retreat from Jühnsdorff to Blankenfelde. Leggiere argues that, although this meant the loss of a crossing over the canal, it ‘proved to be a far more decisive position’ the next day.[3]

Early on August 23 Bertrand advanced on Blankenfelde. After an initial combat between skirmishers Bertrand’s artillery forced Tauentzien’s raw Landwehr troops to withdraw. Bertrand also fell back, as he believed that the advance of Reynier on his left would force the Prussians to withdraw, thus allowing the French to win by manoeuvre rather than a frontal assault. Tauntzien did not follow up because of the inexperience of his troops, and both corps were back at their start points by 2pm.

Early on 23 August Bernadotte had ordered Bülow to move his corps further west to Ruhlsdorf. This recreated a gap between Bülow and Tauentzien’s corps that the French could break through and advance to Berlin.

By 10am Bülow could hear the sounds of battle to his east, so sent a messenger to Bernadotte asking permission to close the gap. Bernadotte eventually agreed, but then ordered one of Bülow’s brigades, the 3rd, to hold its position because of reports that the French were advancing on Ruhlsdorf. Reports from Blankenfelde convinced Bernadotte that the threat was to his left flank, and he released the 3rd Brigade to join Bülow.

Reynier reached Gross Beeren around 3pm and took it easily, before ordering his two Saxon and one French divisions, comprising 27,000 men, to camp for the night. Bülow, who had 38,000 troops, decided to attack.[4]

The battle began with an artillery duel that lasted from 5pm to 6pm. It started with 62 Prussian and Russian guns against 44 French and Saxons ones, rising to 80 and 69 respectively as reinforcements arrived. Both sides had therefore suffered significant casualties before Bülow launched his attack against General Sahr’s Saxon division on Reynier’s right. Rain made it impossible for the Saxons to fire their muskets at the advancing French.

The Saxons, heavily outnumbered, were forced to retreat. Reynier ordered General Pierre-François-Joseph Durutte’s French division to counter-attack, but it retreated when it encountering the fleeing Saxons. General Lecoq’s Saxon division was also unable to retake the lost ground, and Reynier used it to cover the retreat of his corps, which by 10pm was back where it started the day.

The French and Saxons lost 3,000 men and 13 guns and the Prussians 1,000 men. F. Lorraine Petre says that the ‘fight was of no real importance to either side.’[5] Leggiere, however, argues that it showed that the reforms of the Prussian Army that had taken place over the previous five years had been successful and that it ‘silenced critics who still questioned the combat-efficiency of the Prussia troops, especially the Landwehr.’[6] He also notes that there was not ‘the slightest hint of pan-German nationalism’ in the attitude of the Saxons.[7]

Bülow’s suggestion that Tauentzien retreat to Blankenfelde probably prevented Bertrand from enveloping Bülow’s corps, which would probably have led to Bernadotte retreating and the French capturing Berlin. The loss of both Prussia’s capital and its new army’s first battle would have had dire consequences for Prussian morale.

Oudinot retreated his army back to Wittenberg, whilst Davout retired to Hamburg. The Coalition might have routed Oudinot’s army if Bernadotte had pursued it, but he did not. Bernadotte, concerned about the threat from Oudinot to his own corps, had dismissed an appeal by Bülow for support on his right flank with the words that ‘the enemy is before me, each must defend his own front.’[8]

Napoleon blamed Oudinot for the failure to take Berlin and replaced him with Marshal Michel Ney. Napoleon’s orders to Ney said that Oudinot ‘never attacked the enemy, and he has been so clever as to let one of his corps attack separately.’[9] However, Napoleon must take his share of the blame for giving an independent army command to a man who was, as Petre says, ‘at most qualified for the subordinate command of an army corps.’[10]

[1] M. V. Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), p. 153.

[2] Ibid., p. 157.

[3] Ibid., p. 156.

[4] Strengths and casualties are from F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), pp. 261-63.

[5] Ibid., p. 262.

[6] Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin, p. 173.

[7] Ibid., p. 174.

[8] Quoted in Ibid., p. 166.

[9] Quoted in Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign, p. 264.

[10] Ibid.


Filed under War History

The Battle of Sorauren, 28-30 July.

On 25 July 1813 French troops commanded by Marshal Nicolas Soult attacked the Allies at Maya and Roncesvalles with the intention of relieving the siege of San Sebastian and the blockade of Pamplona. The Allies, contrary to Wellington’s orders, gave ground.

Wellington, accompanied by only his ADC, Fitzroy Somerset, rode towards the Allied army on 27 July. They reached the village of Sorauren, 10 miles from Pamplona, just ahead of the advancing French. The Allied army was drawn up along a ridge to the southeast, latter called Cole’s ridge after General Sir Lowry Cole. Wellington joined it to the cheers of the troops.

The French took up position along a ridge to the north of the one occupied by the Allied army, later called Clausel’s ridge after General Bertrand Clausel.  They were not ready to attack that day. A thunderstorm in the afternoon boosted Allied morale because there had been one before the battle of Salamanca. It delayed the arrival of reinforcements to both sides.

On 28 July Soult’s 30,000 men attacked Wellington’s 24,000 across the valley between the two ridges. Fighting was fierce, but the French assaults were beaten off. Allied casualties were 1,358 British, 1,102 Portuguese and 192 Spaniards dead or wounded. Around 4,000 French troops were killed or wounded.[1]

Soult’s offensive had failed, and his army was now in a position where it could not be supplied. His obvious course of action was to retreat the way that he had come. However, he was informed that the three divisions of General Jean-Baptiste Drouet, Count D’Erlon, which had missed the battle, were now to his right and rear. Soult decided to join Drouet in an attempt to cut Wellington off from San Sebastian.

Soult’s attempt to disengage on the night of 29-30 July could have succeeded only if it was conducted in complete secrecy, but Allied pickets heard the sound of troops moving in the early hours of 30 July. At daybreak French troops could be seen withdrawing, and were bombarded by the Allied artillery.

Wellington then launched a series of co-ordinated attacks. The Allies were out-numbered, but French morale was very low and they were routed. The battle was over by noon.

Soult was able to withdraw the survivors of his army to France without another major battle, but his nine day offensive cost him 13,500 casualties out of 60,000. The Allies lost 7,100 out of 40,000 men actually engaged in combat.[2]

Charles Esdaile notes that it is hard to see what Soult hoped his offensive would achieve. He could not have resupplied Pamplona even if he reached it, and it would have been difficult to keep his attacking force supplied.[3]

[1] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, (London: Greenhill, 1992), p. 296.

[2] Ibid., p. 300.

[3] C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), p. 460.


Filed under War History

The Battle of Vitoria – map

I forgot to include a map in the previous post on the battle of Vitoria. This one should make it easier to understand the course of the battle

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Battle_of_Vitoria_map.jpg



Filed under War History

The Battle of Vitoria, 21 June 1813.

In 1812 Wellington defeated the French at Salamanca, took Madrid, and then advanced to Burgos. He failed to capture Burgos, and was forced to retreat past Salamanca. Crucially, however, his army retained control of the fortresses of Ciudad Rodrigo in the north and Badajoz in the south.

These two fortresses, known as the keys to Spain, controlled the two invasion routes from Portugal to Spain. In 1812 Wellington had needed to capture them in order to advance further into Spain. In 1813 his task was easier because he already held them.

Additionally, the French forces facing him were weaker because they had been stripped of troops to rebuild the French army in central Europe after the failure of Napoleon’s 1812 Russian Campaign. Wellington had received reinforcements, and had spent the winter and spring training his troops and improving his army’s supply and medical arrangements.

Napoleon thought that Wellington had only 50,000 men, but he had 80,000. He was therefore more concerned with the Spanish guerrillas than with Wellington. General Bertrand Clausel was sent north with the 40,000 troops of the Army of Portugal to deal with the guerrillas.[1]

Wellington was aware that the French had split their forces because George Scovell, his code breaker, had deciphered a captured despatch from the French army in the north to King Joseph Bonaparte.[2]

Wellington’s plan was to advance as far as he could towards the Franco-Spanish border in the Pyrenees. Operations did not begin until 22 May, as the rains had been late, meaning that there was a shortage of suitable forage for the horses until then. He was confident of success, allegedly stating ‘Farewell Portugal. I shall never see you again’ as he crossed the frontier into Spain.[3]

Wellington initially split his army: part moved through Salamanca, with  the rest, commanded by Sir Thomas Graham moving north before heading east towards Valladolid.

The French, commanded by King Joseph and Marshal Jean-Baptiste Jourdan, were forced to retreat. The Allied army took Salamanca, Zamora, Valladolid and Burgos, advancing 200 miles without a fight. On 13 May the French blew up the defences of Burgos, which they had successfully defended in September and October 1812.

Napoleon defeated the Austro-Prussians at Lützen and Bautzen in May, before agreeing an armistice with them at Pläswitz on 4 June. Wellington later told a friend that his staff argued that:

‘we ought not to risk the army and what we had obtained, and that this armistice would enable Buonaparte [sic] to reinforce his army in Spain, and we therefore should look to a defensive system. I thought differently.’[4]

Buonaparte was a deliberate mis-spelling of Bonaparte often used in Britain to emphasis Napoleon’s Corsican origins.

On 21 June the French made a stand at Vitoria. The Allies were now too close to France for Joseph to continue to retreat.

Joseph had about 60,000 troops after being joined by part of the Army of Portugal. He hoped to be reinforced by Clausel and another three divisions. Wellington had about 75,000 men, having detached the British 6th Division to cover the road to Santander and sent most of the Spanish 6th Army towards Bilbao. Wellington had received intelligence that Clausel could not arrive before 22 June.

Vitoria was in a valley that measured about six miles from north to south and 10 miles east to west. It was protected to the south by hills that were mostly impassable to formed troops and by the River Zadorra to the north. The French thought that Wellington would therefore have to attack from the west, and believed that he would not be able to outflank them.

There were, however, many fords and bridges across the Zadorra. Wellington sent a large force under Graham north to swing round the French right flank. Joseph and Jourdan knew from the reports of cavalry patrols that there were fewer enemy troops to the west than they had expected.

As they apparently thought, wrongly, that the roads through the hills north of Vitoria were unsuitable for large number of men, they assumed that Wellington was heading for Bilbao.  One of the  French division resumed its retreat towards France, escorting the baggage, thus reducing the French army to 57,000 men.

Wellington’s plan involved four different attacks. Graham, with the 25,000 men of  the 1st and 5th British Divisions, Pack and Bradford’s Portuguese Brigades, Longa’s Spanish Division was to cut off the enemy retreat. In the west, the first attack would come in the south from the 20,000 men under Sir Rowland Hill: the British 2nd, Silveira’s Portuguese and Morillo’s Spanish Divisions.

Wellington personally commanded the rest of the army. The British 3rd and 7th Divisions would attack from the north-west and the 4th and Light Divisions from the west, where the French expected the main attack. Each force had a proportion of cavalry and artillery, but the largest contingent of cavalry, four of 10 brigades, was in the force attacking from the west.[5]

Hill attacked first, and his troops were in combat before 8:30 am. Graham’s troops were skirmishing by 9 am, but his orders were to delay a full attack until he was in contact with the other Allied columns: he was starting eight miles away from them.

Hill’s attack went well, but Wellington did not want to launch the attack from the west until the 3rd and 7th Divisions were in combat. Lord Dalhousie’s 7th Division was slow getting into position, and Wellington sent an ADC to find him. The ADC instead encountered Sir Thomas Picton, commanding the 3rd Division. The ADC had orders for Dalhousie to attack a bridge, but no orders for Picton, who declared that his division would attack the bridge.

Wellington, seeing the 3rd Division moving into action, ordered the Light Division forward. A Spanish peasant volunteered to guide one of its brigades across the Zadorra by the unguarded Tres Puentes bridge. He was later killed.

By lunchtime the French were being attacked from three sides. They put up fierce resistance, but had been deployed against a frontal assault, and were forced back. They could have been completely destroyed, but Graham, much older than the other British generals, was slow to move.

He followed the letter of his orders and moved east to cut the Madrid to Bayonne road. Charles Esdaile argues that, had he ‘shown a modicum of initiative’, he could have attacked south towards Vitoria and cut the French line of retreat.[6]

Jac Weller gives the total of dead, wounded and missing as being 8,000 French and 5,000 Allied.[7] However, the French lost all but one of their 152 guns, over 500 artillery caissons. almost all their supplies and Joseph’s state papers and treasury.[8]

The French baggage train offered huge opportunities for loot, which the Allied troops were unable to resist. The citizens of Vitoria also suffered. Wellington deplored such activities, but even he benefitted: the Spanish government allowed him to retain a collection of Old Masters that Joseph had been taking back to France. They can still be seen on the walls of Apsley House, Wellington’s London house, which is now open to the public.

Jourdan’s Marshal’s baton was amongst the trophies. Wellington sent it to the Prince Regent, who in return promoted Wellington to Field Marshal, which meant that he received a British baton.

Graham’s lack of initiative and the army’s loss of discipline once presented with an opportunity to loot meant that most of the French soldiers escaped. However, the capture of the French supplies and artillery meant the destruction of Joseph’s army as an effective fighting force. The Allied army could now advance to the Pyrenees and threaten France.

Vitoria and the preceding campaign showed that Wellington was not just a cautious general, happiest on the defensive. He moved his army quickly across Spain and devised an imaginative plan that ended in the enemy being routed.

[1] Unless otherwise stated, figures for troop numbers are from C. J. Esdaile, The Peninsular War: A New History (London: Allen Lane, 2002), pp. 442-54.

[2] P. Snow, To War with Wellington: From the Peninsula to Waterloo (London: John Murray, 2010), p. 189.

[3] Quoted in Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 443; and Snow, Wellington, p. 188. Esdaile is ‘wary’ of the story, but notes that there is ‘little doubt’ that Wellington was optimistic

[4] Quoted in Snow, Wellington, pp. 188-89.

[5] J. Weller, Wellington in the Peninsula 1808-1814, New ed. (London: Greenhill, 1992), pp. 256-57.

[6] Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 448.

[7] Weller, Peninsula, p. 269.

[8] Esdaile, Peninsular War, p. 450.


Filed under War History

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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