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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 Craonne 7 March 1814

Napoleon defeated Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia at Montereau on 18 February 1814, but Schwarzenberg was able to retreat, preventing Napoleon from achieving a decisive victory.

Representatives of the Coalition of Austria, Britain, Prussia and Russia met at Chaumont on 1 March. Eight days later they signed a treaty, which was dated 1 March, promising to continue the war and not to sign individual peace treaties with France. Britain agreed to pay £5 million in subsidies in 1814, to be evenly divided between the other three signatories. Napoleon was offered peace if he accepted the pre-Revolutionary War frontiers of France; he rejected this offer.

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

Even before the signing of this treaty Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia had resumed its advance northwards. It had been reinforced back to 53,000 men after its defeats at the Battles of Champaubert, Montmirail and Vauchamps between 10 and 14 February 1814.[1]

Blücher forced Marshal Auguste De Marmont’s heavily outnumbered force to retreat. Napoleon told his brother Joseph that ‘As soon as I see what Blücher wants to do I shall try to fall on his rear and isolate him.’[2]

Blücher was heading for Paris, but David Chandler notes that Napoleon doubted that Blücher would do something as risky as resuming his advance on Paris.’[3] However, the Emperor planned to attack the Army of Silesia’s rear with 30,000 troops of the Imperial Guard. Marmont and Marshal Édouard Mortier’s corps would pin Blücher frontally.

Marshal Jacques Macdonald was to command the 40,000 troops facing Schwarzenberg, but the enemy were to be given no hint that Napoleon had moved away. He told his minister of war that ‘I hope I will have time to complete my operations [against Blücher] before the foe [Schwarzenberg]  notices it and advances.’[4]

On 1 March Blücher ordered his army to cross to the north bank of the Marne after receiving reports that there were French troops advancing on him. All the bridges across the Marne had been burnt by the time that Napoleon reached the south bank. He had no bridging train, so had to wait whilst a bridge was repaired. He believed that he would have been able to decisively defeat Blücher here and to have destroyed Schwarzenberg’s army at Montereau had he possessed a bridging train.

Blücher was moving north with the intention of joining the Prussian corps of General Friederich von Bülow and the Russian corps of General Ferdinand von Winzengerode. By 5 March they had combined, giving Blücher over 100,000 men.

In the south Schwarzenberg had renewed his offensive once Napoleon headed north to attack Blücher. Macdonald had retreated, giving up Troyes. On learning of this Napoleon claimed that ‘I cannot believe such ineptitude. No man can be worse seconded than I.’[5]

The Emperor still intended to advance on Laon and attack Blücher. However, on 6 March he learnt that there was a substantial enemy force on the Plateau of Craonne. He assumed that it was Blücher’s flank or rear guard. In fact the Prussian wanted Napoleon to attack General Fabian von Osten-Sacken’s corps and Winzengerode’s infantry, commanded by General Mikhail Vorontsov. Winzengerode’s cavalry and General Friedrich von Kleist’s Prussian corps would then sweep round the French northern flank and attack their rear.

Dominic Lieven notes that this plan left a large portion of Blücher’s army unengaged, and that the flanking attack would have to move over difficult terrain that had not been properly reconnoitred. It consequently moved very slowly and failed to get into action.

Chandler gives Vorontsov and Sacken’s combined strength as 30,000, with 11,000 cavalry in the flanking attack.[6] Lieven says 10,000 cavalry, with Vorontsov’s 16,300 infantrymen fighting alone for the bulk of the day. He argues that claims that 29,000 Frenchmen opposed 50,000 Coalition troops count every soldier within a day’s march of the battlefield rather than the number who actually fought.[7] This website estimates 35,000 Frenchmen and 30,000 Coalition soldiers, noting that:

French author Houssaye gives Napoleon 30,000 men and Vorontsov 50,000 men. British military historian Digby-Smith gives 33,000 Frenchmen and 24,000 Russians. Another British author Maycock gives 30,000 Frenchmen and 20,000 Russians.

Vorontsov had a strong defensive position in the centre, based on the Heurtebise farm. Napoleon intended to pin him frontally, with 14,000 men led by Marshal Michel Ney attacking Vorontsov’s northern flank.[8] Ney attacked just after 10 am. This was earlier than planned, and the 72 guns of the Imperial Guard artillery were not ready to support him, resulting in his attack failing.

Vorontsov was able to hold his position comfortably until the early afternoon, when French reinforcements arrived. Blücher then ordered him to withdraw, as the failure of the Coalition flank attack meant that there was no reason to continue the fight. Vorontsov was reluctant to retreat, but eventually obeyed repeated orders by Sacken to fall back. His men withdrew in good order.

Chandler gives casualties of 5,000 Coalition and 5,500 French killed and wounded.[9] Lieven agrees on the Coalition casualties, but notes that the French initially admitted to 8,000 casualties until later French historians, such as Henri Houssaye,  downgraded this to 5,400. He adds that, whilst the French held the battlefield at the end of the day, they captured no guns and very few men. The French could not afford battles in which they lost even the same number of men as the enemy, so this was a bad result for them.[10]


[1] Unlesss otherwise stated troop numbers are from D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 984-88.

[2] Quoted in Ibid., p. 984.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Quoted in Ibid., p. 985.

[5] Quoted in Ibid., p. 986.

[6] Ibid., pp. 987-88.

[7] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), pp. 499-502.

[8] Ibid., p. 500.

[9] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 988.

[10] Lieven, Russia, pp. 501-2.

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The Battle of 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 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).

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The Battle of La Rothiere 1 February 1814

Napoleon was uncertain of the positions and strength of his opponents after his victory over Prince Gebhard von Blücher’s Army of Silesia at Brienne on 29 January 1814. He was heavily outnumbered, so aimed to attack only detached Coalition forces, trying to avoid battle with the main enemy forces.

Blücher’s army retreated about 6 miles to Trannes, where, by luck rather than planning, it contacted Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia. The French had initially pursued Blücher, but halted at La Rothiere, about 3half way between Brienne and Trannes, on 30 January. Napoleon, according to David Chandler, ‘uncharacteristically bided his time.’[1] Heavy snow restricted French reconnaissance, meaning that Napoleon did not realise that he was in danger of being attacked by both the two main Coalition armies

Blücher and Schwarzenberg decided to attack Napoleon on 1 February. Blücher was given command of 53,000 men, with the corps of Prince Fabian von Osten-Sacken and Count Zakhar Olsufiev being reinforced by two corps of Schwarzenberg’s army. Prince Karl Phillip von Wrede’s 26,000 Bavarians were to threaten the French left, with 34,000 Russians under Prince Mikhail Barclay de Tolly being held in reserve.

About 6,000 of the reserves would be committed, giving the Coalition 85,000 men in the forthcoming battle against 45,000 Frenchmen and 128 guns.[2]

F. Loraine Petre argues that ‘it is almost inconceivable’ that Napoleon would have intended to fight defensively on an open plain when he was heavily outnumbered, especially in cavalry.[3] He was uncertain of the enemy’s position and manoeuvres, but suspected that they intended to pin him at Brienne and attack at Troyes. He therefore ordered a retreat towards Troyes.

Around noon Napoleon received reports that suggested that the Blücher’s army was advancing on La Rothiere from Trannes. He decided that he had no choice but to stand and fight, even on unsuitable ground. He recalled Marshal Michel Ney’s corps, which had already started to retreated, but for now there were only 34,000 French troops on the battlefield.[4]

Blücher’s attack began around 1 pm. General Étienne Nansouty’s cavalry charged Russian artillery that was firing high, killing a large number of gunners. Sacken brought up his infantry, but a brief pause in the snowfall revealed them to the French artillery and cavalry. Nansouty charged and his troopers initially swept away the enemy cavalry, but were then caught in the flank by fresh cavalry and defeated, with the loss of 24 guns.

An immediate Coalition advance might then have broken the French centre, but the snow obscured Blücher’s view of the action, and the chance was gone by the time that he learned of it.

The French were able to resist Coalition attacks until around 4 pm, when their left began to buckle under attacks from Wrede’s troops, which took the village of Chaumesnil. In the centre Barclay’s fresh troops almost took La Rothiere. Napoleon, faced with two simultaneous crises, reacted quickly, organising two counter-attacks. La Rothiere was retaken, whilst a desperate fight took place on the French left.

The arrival of Wrede meant that the French were beaten, and Napoleon ordered a retreat to Lesmont. Aided by dusk and the snowfall, he was able to break contact all along the line.

Both sides lost about 6,000 dead, wounded and prisoners, with about 2,000 Frenchmen being captured. The French also lost 50-60 guns.[5]

A lack of intelligence about the enemy and poor weather meant Napoleon had been forced to fight a superior enemy, something that he had wanted to avoid. Chandler says that ‘there is little but praise’ for the way in which he fought the battle well and extracted his army.[6] The Coalition might have won a victory that would have decided the campaign had Blücher been given full control of the reserves. However, Petre notes that the Austrians did not want ‘a really decisive victory’ as they had not ruled out a political solution that would leave Napoleon in his throne.[7]


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 960.

[2] F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), p. 30.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 32.

[5] Ibid., p. 37.

[6] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 964.

[7] Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814, p. 37.

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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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