Tag Archives: Old Guard

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 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.



Filed under War History