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The Battle of Arcis-sur-Aube 20-21 March 1814.

Napoleon’s victory at Rheims on 13 March 1814 put his army in between Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia and Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia. The Army of Silesia, temporarily commanded by General August von Gneisenau because Blücher was ill, retreated to Laon, where it had defeated Napoleon on 9-10 March.

This gave Napoleon an opportunity to move south with 24,000 men, including 4,500 recently arrived reinforcements, in an attempt to stop Schwarzenberg’s 122,000 troops advancing on Paris. He left 21,000 men under Marshals Auguste de Marmont and Édouard Mortier to cover the 100,000 strong Army of Bohemia. Marshal Jacques Macdonald, with 42,000 troops, had been ordered to hold back the Army of Bohemia, However, his force had been forced to retreat, and was reduced to 30,000 men by 17 March.[1]

Napoleon had a choice of three routes of advance: to Arcis-sur-Aube to threaten Schwarzenberg’s rear; to Provins to join Macdonald in front of Schwarzenberg; or to Meaux. The last option would take him closer to Paris and there was a bad crossroads on the second route, so he chose the first, which he said ‘is the boldest, and its results are incalculable.’[2]

The French advance began on 17 March. Napoleon now had a bridging train, enabling his army to move faster than it had been able to earlier in this campaign. However, Schwarzenberg, after learning of the Coalition defeat at Rheims, began to retreat to Troyes on the same day. Macdonald was unable to prevent him doing so.

Napoleon decided to advance on Arcis-sur-Aube, which he thought was held only by a small rearguard. From past experience he thought that defeating it would result in Schwarzenberg retreating. However, the Austrian had decided to take the offensive.Battle_of_Arcis-sur-Aube_map

The French took Arcis without opposition by 11 am on 20 March. Napoleon arrived at 1 pm and ignored reports that there were large enemy forces advancing on Arcis. Instead he unquestioningly accepted a report by one officer that the only Coalition troops nearby were 1,000 Cossacks, which suited his ‘preconceived notions.’[3]

At 2 pm Schwarzenberg launched a major attack. Coalition cavalry at first forced back General Horace-François-Bastien Sébastiani’s outnumbered French cavalry, despite the support of Marshal Michel Ney’s corps. However, Napoleon put himself at the head of some newly arrived Old Guardsmen and rallied the cavalry. He frequently exposed himself to enemy fire in this campaign. At one point he deliberately rode his horse over an enemy howitzer shell just before it exploded. The horse was killed, but the Emperor was unharmed.

After dark Sébastiani, with the addition of 2,000 recently arrived French cavalry, commanded by General Charles Lefebvre-Desnouëttes, launched a charge that routed two Coalition cavalry divisions. Their advance was halted by Russian artillery, but they retreated in good order.

The French held the field after the first day and lost fewer men than the over 2,000 casualties that they had inflicted on the enemy.[4] Napoleon still believed that he had fought the enemy rearguard, which had just been bigger than he had expected. However, Schwarzenberg had massed over 80,000 men, hidden on reverse slopes, to attack the next day. Some more French reinforcements arrived overnight, but Napoleon had only 28,000 men, including 9,000 cavalry at dawn on 21 March.[5]

F. Loraine Petre argues that if Napoleon had not ignored the reports that he faced a major opponent he could have safely moved across the Aube at night. He could then have left Macdonald behind in a defensive position, whilst threatening the Coalition lines of communication by operating along the north bank of the Aube. Tsar Alexander feared that he would do this, which would probably have forced Schwarzenberg to retreat.[6]

On the morning of 10 am Schwarzenberg delayed ordering an attack as he was uncertain of Napoleon’s strength and intentions and because the Tsar opposed a Coalition offensive. Napoleon at first continued to believe that he faced only the enemy rearguard, but waited for the arrival of Macdonald.

Just after 10 am Napoleon, unaware of how many enemy troops were hidden on the reverse slopes, ordered Sébastiani and Ney to advance from Torcy-le-Grand on his left flank. They stopped on seeing the size of the Coalition army.

Petre argues that a bold Coalition attack at this point ‘must have swept the French bodily into the river.’[7] However, Schwarzenberg did not decide to issue attack orders until after a council of war at noon, and the attack would not start until he gave the command.

Napoleon acted quickly once he realised that he had been acting on false assumptions. He issued orders to retreat across the bridge at Arcis and a pontoon bridge that was to be hurriedly built at Villlette. The pontoon bridge was ready by 1:30 pm.

Schwarzenberg did not attack until 3 pm, when he finally realised that the French were retreating across the river. The rearguard was commanded by Sébastiani, who got most of his cavalry across the pontoon bridge before destroying it, and Marshal Nicolas Oudinot; his outnumbered troops fought in Arcis until 6 pm, when they withdrew across the bridge and destroyed it.

Over the two days the French suffered about 3,000 casualties and the Coalition 4,000.[8] The Coalition did not try to pursue the retreating French, who reached St Dizier on 23 March.


[1] Coalition troop strengths are from D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 505; French from F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), pp. 156-58.

[2] Quoted in Petre, Napoleon at Bay, p. 156.

[3] This phrase is used by both D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 996; and Petre, Napoleon at Bay, p. 169.

[4] Petre, Napoleon at Bay, p. 171.

[5] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 997.

[6] Petre, Napoleon at Bay, p. 172.

[7] Ibid., p. 174.

[8] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 998.

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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 Battle of Dennewitz 6 September 1813

At the start of the Autumn 1813 German campaign Napoleon appointed Marshal Nicolas Oudinot to command the Army of Berlin, which was ordered to capture Berlin. Its advance initially went well, but it was defeated by Prussian troops under General Friederich von Bülow at Gross Beeren on 23 August 1813.

Napoleon, following his victory over Prince Karl Philip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia at Dresden on 26-27 August, intended to take part of his army 60 miles north to Luckau. There he would  join up with Oudinot and attack Berlin.

The rest of the main army would remain at Dresden under the command of Marshal Joachim Murat to cover against the Army of Bohemia, which was regrouping. In the east Napoleon believed that Marshal Jacques MacDonald would be able to rally his Army of Bober after its defeat at the Katzbach by Prince Gebhardt Blücher’s Army of Silesia on 26 August.

Oudinot, however, ordered a retreat to Wittenberg on the Elbe rather than Luckau. This exposed the communications of both MacDonald’s army and the main French force.

Napoleon, angry at Oudinot’s performance, replaced him as commander of the Army of Berlin with Marshal Michel Ney on 2 September, but left him in charge of XII Corps. This meant that Ney had an unhappy subordinate in a key position. The army also included General Jean Reynier’s VII Corps, General Henri-Gratien Bertrand’s IV Corps and General Jean-Toussaint Arrighi’s III Cavalry Corps.

Ney’s orders were to attack Berlin, with support from Napoleon at Luckau. However, MacDonald’s army was in a worse state than Napoleon had realised, so he moved to Bautzen on 3 September to confront Blücher. The Army of Silesia withdrew, in accordance with the Coalition’s Trachenberg Plan of avoiding combat with Napoleon himself, but attempting to attack detached French corps.

Napoleon now returned to Dresden, having heard reports that Schwarzenberg was advancing on the city. Michael Leggiere argues that Ney’s orders to his army imply that he did not receive a message sent by Napoleon on 4 or 5 September informing him that his advance on Berlin would not now be supported by troops commanded by Napoleon.[1]

Bernadotte, the Crown Prince of Sweden and commander of  the Coalition Army of North Germany, intended that the advance guard of General Friedrich von Tauentzien’s 4th Prussian Corps would engage the French at Zahna. It would then fall back on the rest of the corps at Dennewitz  and Jüterborg. The rest of the Army of North Germany would then attack Ney’s left and rear.

On 5 September Oudinot’s corps forced Tauentzien’s advance guard to retreat. The next day Bertrand’s corps encountered Tauentzien’s at Dennewitz. Reynier’s corps was late leaving its overnight camp and then took the wrong road. This also delayed Oudinot.

There was a gap between Tauentzien’s right flank and Bülow’s corps. By 11 am Bertrand’s attack on Tauentzien was going well, but the French were unwilling to take risks on their left because of the threat from Bülow. He had started marching towards the guns at 10:30, and his troops reached the battlefield at 12:30. Tauentzien was beaten by then, but his troops had held the French up for long enough for Bülow to arrive.

Reynier did not reach the battlefield until 2 pm, with Oudinot arriving an hour later. The Prussian troops were by then under pressure, with Swedish and Russian reinforcements two or three miles away. F. Lorraine Petre comments that a French attack on their left at this stage could have won them the battle, but ‘Ney seized this moment to ruin his own chances of success.’[2]

Ney could not see what was happening on the left because of thick dust swirling in the air, amd decided that the decisive area was on the right, which he could see. He ordered Oudinot to move his corps from the left to the right in support of the remnants of Bertrand’s corps.

Reynier asked Oudinot to leave at least one division on the left, but Oudinot  insisted on obeying the letter of his orders, although he could see that they were mistaken. Petre, Dominic Lieven and David Chandler all criticise him for this, arguing that he did so because he was still upset at having Ney put above him.[3]

Bertrand was forced back by 5 pm, long before Oudinot was in position. Ney ordered a retreat on Dahme at 6 pm, but many French units did not receive  the orders, and his army scattered. Only a few French troops reached Dahme, and Ney ordered them to continue to retreat to Torgau.

Two Prussian corps totalling 45,000 men had defeated three French corps, killing or wounding 8,000 out of 58,000 enemy troops and captured 13,500 men, 53 guns and 412 supply wagons. Prussian losses were 10,500 killed and wounded including losses at Zahna and in the pursuit.[4]

See this website for a detailed description of the battle, including maps and orders of battle.

Bernadotte’s total army was bigger than Ney’s, but its Swedish and Russian components did not reach the battlefield until the battle was almost won. However, the Russian cavalry contributed significantly to the pursuit, in which most of the prisoners were taken.

Napoleon had won the biggest battle of the campaign so far, at Dresden, but his dilatory handling of the pursuit meant that he did not turn a victory into a rout. His subordinates had lost four other battles: Gross Beeren, the Katzbach, Kulm and Dennewitz. Dominic Lieven points out that the French had so far lost 100,000 men and over 200 guns and the Coalition, which was receiving more recruits, 85,000 men and 50 guns.[5] The campaign was only three weeks old, and the balance had swung against Napoleon.


[1] M. V. Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), p. 193.

[2] F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), p. 274.

[3] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 914-15; D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 424; Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign, pp. 274-75.

[4] Leggiere, Napoleon and Berlin, p. 209; Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign, pp. 271, 276.

[5] Lieven, Russia, p. 425.

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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.

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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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Napoleon’s Crossing of the Berezina

Napoleon fought off the pursuing Russians under Prince Mikhail Kutuzov at Krasny on 17 November 1812. However, he was forced to continue to retreat to the River Berezina, leaving Orsha on 20 November.

Click here for a link to a map of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow on Wikimedia.

Kutuzov had missed a number of opportunities to cut off and destroy Napoleon’s Grande Armée as it retreated from Moscow. This angered Tsar Alexander, who said that Kutuzov displayed ‘inexplicable inactivity.’[1]

Three Russian armies were converging on Napoleon. As well as Kutuzov, Admiral Pavel Chichagov had captured Minsk, a major French supply base, and was approaching the Berezina from the south with 60,000 men. In the north, Prince Peter Wittgenstein, with 50,000 troops, had defeated Marshal Claude Victor at Smoliani.

Adam Zamoyski argues that Kutuzov realised that Napoleon and his generals and marshals were better commanders than himself and his subordinates. He consequently did not want to engage in a frontal battle with the Emperor, preferring to wait until Napoleon’s line of retreat had been cut by Chichagov and Wittgenstein.[2]

On 22 November Napoleon learnt that Chichagov had taken Borisov and its wooden bridge across the Berezina. The next day Marshal Charles Oudinot defeated Chichagov and retook the town, but the retreating Russians burnt the bridge.

Normally the ice would have been thick enough in late November to allow the Berezina to be crossed without bridges. However, the Grande Armée, having suffered great privations from the cold, now suffered from an unexpected thaw, which caused the ice to break up.

Fortunately for Napoleon, the Russians were not pressing his army vigorously. They were also suffering from the winter, and his reputation continued to intimidate all their commanders, not just Kutuzov. He also thought that a crushing victory was not necessarily in Russia’s interests, as it would benefit Britain more. General Sir Robert Wilson, a British observer, reported that Kutuzov had said that:

I am by no means sure that the total destruction of the Emperor Napoleon and his army would be such a benefit to the world; his succession would not fall to Russia or any other continental power, but to that which already commands the sea whose domination would then be intolerable.[3]

Napoleon considered attacking Wittgenstein, and then taking an alternative route, which would enable him to reach Vilna without crossing the Berezina. He rejected this because of the exhaustion of his troops, the poor roads and the muddy terrain, deciding to construct a pontoon bridge at Borisov.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Battle_of_Berezina_map.jpgGregory Fremont-Barnes (main editor) - The Encyclopedia of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, page 137. Adapted from Chandler 1966, 840.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Battle_of_Berezina_map.jpg
Gregory Fremont-Barnes (main editor) – The Encyclopedia of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, page 137. Adapted from Chandler 1966, 840.

Napoleon had ordered General Jean Baptiste Eblé, the commander of his bridging train, to destroy his equipment in order to prevent it being captured. However, Eblé had destroyed only the actual pontoon bridge, retaining his tools, smithies and charcoal. Thus, his engineers, who were mostly Dutch, could build a pontoon bridge by tearing down local houses for their wood.The problem was that the river was wide at the site of the burnt bridge, and large blocks of ice, propelled by a strong current, were floating down it. This made construction of a replacement at the same site very difficult.

General Jean Baptiste Corbineau, one of Oudinot’s cavalry brigade commanders, then reported that he had found a ford at Studienka, eight miles north of Borisov. Napoleon initially rejected Oudinot’s suggestion of crossing there, but changed his mind after meeting Corbineau on 25 November.

Eblé was ordered to start building three bridges across the Berezina at Studienka at nightfall on 25 November. Various demonstrations were planned in order to distract Chichagov, whose army was to the west of the Berezina an south of Borisov.

A detailed plan was prepared to move the troops still under discipline across the river, starting as soon as the bridges were complete. However, it depended on the enemy being distracted by the diversionary operations and no specific plans were drawn up to allow stragglers to cross.

The first bridge, intended for infantry, was completed by 1pm on 26 November, and the crossing began immediately. The second one, capable of taking wagons, was ready by 4pm. The plan to build a third was abandoned because there were not enough materials to do so.

Lack of time and materials meant that the bridges were improvised and flimsy, and continual repairs were required. The heavier one had to be closed from 8pm  until 11pm on 27 November, from 2am until 4am the next morning and from 4pm to 6pm later that day. The breakages caused hundreds of death.

However, most of the organised and armed troops were across by the end of 27 November, leaving just Victor’s IX Corps as rearguard. The Gendarmes had so far prevented unarmed men and civilians from crossing, but they were now invited to cross. Many, having settled down beside camp fires and, seeing no immediate danger, decided to wait until morning.

The strength of the Grande Armée at this stage is uncertain, but David Chandler estimates that 25,000 men under arms, 110 guns and 40,000 stragglers left Orsha. Joining up with Oudinot and Victor’s corps increased its strength to perhaps 49,000 combatants, 250-300 guns and 40,000 stragglers. About 75,000 Russians were close enough to interfere with the crossing.[4]

Chichagov was slow to realise what was happening, and did not engage Oudinot, who was covering the southern flank on the west bank of the Berezina, until the morning of 27 November. The French had to surrender ground, but maintained their line.

On the east bank of the Berezina, Victor also gave up some ground under pressure from Wittgenstein, but his corps remained intact and Napoleon left able to withdraw one of its brigades, comprised of Germans from Baden, across the river.

The action on both banks began again early on 28 November. Chichagov’s advance guard, commanded by General Eufemiusz Czaplic, a Pole, attacked Oudinot. The position looked so bad for the French that Napoleon prepared to commit the Old Guard, but Oudinot rallied his men. He was wounded, for the 22nd time in his career, and Marshal Michel Ney took command.

Ney was outnumbered by over 30,000 to 12-14,000 men, and his troops were in a worse physical condition. Three quarters of his men, which included Poles, Italians, Wüttermbergers, Dutchmen, Croats, Swiss and Portuguese as well as Frenchmen, fought gallantly.[5]

Ney ordered General Jean-Pierre Doumerc’s cuirassier division to charge the enemy. Czaplic was wounded and 2,000 of his men were captured. This charge, described as ‘brilliant’[6] by Chandler, forced the Russians back. Fighting continued for the rest of the day, but the line had been stabilised.

On the east bank Victor’s force of 8,000 men, mostly from Baden, Hesse, Saxony and Poland, was attacked at 9am by Wittgenstein, who had numerical advantage of four to one. However, the morale of Victor’s men remained, according to Zamoyski, ‘unaccountably high’[7] and they held out.

Victor faced a crisis on his left flank because he was short of troops. One of his divisions, commanded by General Louis Partouneaux, had been ordered to withdraw from Borisov to Studienka in the early hours of 28 November. It took the wrong road and was captured.

Napoleon therefore ordered the Baden brigade that had been withdrawn the day before to cross back over the Berezina. Doing so was very difficult because of the large number of stragglers coming the other way, but the infantry managed to force their way across.

The Russians were able to bring up guns on Victor’s left, which bombarded the bridges, causing panic and great losses amongst the stragglers. Napoleon deployed guns on the west bank, and they inflicted heavy casualties on the Russians who were trying to envelop Victor’s left.

Victor and his men were ordered to retire across the river at 9pm. The bridges had first to be cleared of the dead men and horses and the wreckages of wagons. By 1am, only a small screen was left on the east bank. Victor and Eblé urged the remaining stragglers to cross, but most again decided to wait.

Victor’s last men withdrew at 6am, and the stragglers at last realised the urgency of the situation. Eblé had been ordered by Napoleon to burn the bridges at 7am, but waited until 8:30am because so many were still on the other side of the river. By then the Russians were close to the bridges, leaving him no choice to set them on fire, even though thousands had still to cross.

Chandler argues that ‘Napoleon was undoubtedly in a position to claim a strategic victory’ at the Berezina.’[8] He had extracted the survivors of the Grande Armée, albeit with heavy losses. Chandler attributes this to the inactivity of the Russian commanders and the efforts of Eblé, who he describes as ‘the true hero of the Berezina’[9], Oudinot and Victor.

Chandler also suggests that Kutuzov’s lack of urgency during this phase of the campaign is difficult to interpret as ‘anything else than a deliberate desire to allow Napoleon to escape over the Berezina’[10]

The crossing of the Berezina marked the last major combat of Napoleon’s 1812 Campaign. He had originally intended to fight Chichagov in order to clear the route to Minsk, but the losses incurred in the crossing meant that he had no choice but to retreat to Vilna.

The crossing of the Berezina did not, however, mean the end of the Grande Armée’s ordeal. It continued to suffer casualties in rearguard actions, and to the weather; the temperature was still falling.


[1] Quoted in A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 432.

[2] Ibid., pp. 435-7.

[3] Quoted in D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 834.

[4] Ibid., pp. 841-42.

[5] Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 471-73.

[6] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 842.

[7] Zamoyski, 1812, p. 473.

[8] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 845.

[9] Ibid., p. 841.

[10] Ibid., p. 846.

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Battle of Smolensk, 17 August 1812.

This post follows on from this one on Napoleon’s campaign in Russia up to Battle of Vitebsk on 28 July 1812.

The Russian commander, General Michael Barclay de Tolly, was reluctant to attack. The further that the French advanced into Russia, the better the odds became for the Russians. The French were being harassed by Cossacks and had to leave troops to guard their lines of supply, whilst the Russian were able to bring up more troops.

However, most Russians could not understand why they were surrendering so much territory without a fight, especially after Barclay was joined by General Peter Bagration’s Second Army on 4 August. According to David Chandler, Barclay commanded 125,000 men and Napoleon had about 185,000 in the immediate area.[1]

Barclay was under pressure both from both Tsar Alexander and from his subordinates to attack. On 6 August his generals persuaded him to concentrate against Marshal Joachim Murat’s cavalry and Marshal Michel Ney’s corps. The next day, Barclay received false reports that there was a French force at Poriechie to his north. He re-aligned his army to the north to face the supposed French threat.

General Matviei Platov, commanding the Don Cossacks. did not receive the order to move north. He encountered and defeated General Horace Sebastiani’s cavalry division at the Battle of Inkovo, taking 200 prisoners, but had to retreat when the French counter-attacked.

Barclay ordered a cautious advance on 13 August, but Bagration, angered by Barclay’s continual changes of orders, declined to co-operate. He had put himself under Barclay’s command when they united on 4 August, but he was not officially subordinate to Bagration.

Napoleon had halted his advance on Smolensk and prepared to receive a Russian attack when he learnt of Inkovo. By 10 August it was apparent that this was not going to happen and he resumed preparations for an attempt to envelop the Russians at Smolensk. Chandler says that:

Almost all commentators agree that this operational plan constitutes one of Napoleon’s masterpieces…This was a manoeuvre of strategic envelopment worthy of the one that preceded his great triumph of Jena-Auerstadt in 1806, and if it had succeeded the fruits of victory would have been no less impressive.[2]

The French manoeuvres started on 11 August. Barclay put a rearguard of 8,000 infantry and 1,500 cavalry under General Neveroski on the south bank of the Dnieper to guard the approaches to Smolensk. It held up the French cavalry, which might otherwise have reached Smolensk on 14 August. Instead, Napoleon paused for a day to re-group.

Napoleon had now lost the element of surprise and the Russians were able to withdraw to Smolensk. Barclay ordered General Raevski to occupy it with 20,000 men and 72 guns. It had a medieval wall and some more modern defences, but these were in a poor state of repair.

The French reached Smolensk on 16 August. Some fighting took place, but they did not attempt to storm the city until the next day. The Russians held on, suffering 12-14,000 casualties, but inflicting 10,000. Chandler says that it is unclear why Napoleon attacked rather than masking the city and moving to threaten the Smolensk to Moscow road.[3]

Barclay feared such a manoeuvre and evacuated Smolensk on the night of 17-18 August after destroying all his stores. Grand Duke Constantine, the Tsar’s brother, and General Bennigsen objected to this and accused Barclay of cowardice.

The French were slow to move, and their pursuit did not get properly underway until 19 August. General Junot was ordered to take his corps over the Dnieper at Prudichevo in order to cut off the Russian retreat, but took all day to find a crossing, and then did not attack. Ney and Murat were held up by the Russian rearguard under Eugen and Tutchkov at Valutino, and the main Russian

Napoleon did have some good news on 18 August; a victory at Polotsk secured his northern flank. Marshal Charles Oudinot, the French commander, was wounded, but General Laurent St Cyr took over and defeated the Russians. St Cyr was promoted to Marshal.

However, Napoleon was having to advance even further into Russia in an attempt to bring the Russians to battle.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 782.

[2] Ibid., pp. 783-84.

[3] Ibid., p. 786.

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