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The Battle of La Fère Champenoise 25 March 1814.

Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia defeated Napoleon’s army at Arcis-sur-Aube on 20-21 March 1814, but did not immediately pursue the retreating enemy. Napoleon reached St Dizier on 23 March.

On 22 March a patrol of Cossacks from Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia captured a French courier who was carrying a letter from Napoleon to his Empress, Marie-Louise. It revealed that the Emperor planned to attack Schwarzenberg’s communications in order to draw the enemy away from Paris.

Blücher sent a copy of the captured letter to the main Coalition headquarters with the Army of Bohemia. A conference between Schwarzenberg, Tsar Alexander, King Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia and their staffs on 23 March decided that the two Coalition armies should unite and pursue Napoleon.

The Coalition commanders then received further captured dispatches. They showed that the morale of the French army and it commanders was low, and that the Paris police chief feared that its population might not stay loyal to Napoleon if the enemy approached the capital. These convinced Alexander that the Coalition armies should advance on Paris.

On 24 March the Tsar persuaded Friedrich Wilhelm and Schwarzenberg that this was the right thing to do. Moving to a rich region that it yet to see fighting would make it far easier to supply the Coalition armies than would be the case if they followed Napoleon through an area that had already been ravaged by war. Paris was far more important politically to Napoleon than Berlin, Vienna or Moscow were to his enemies.

General Ferdinand von Winzengerode was ordered to pursue Napoleon with 8,000 cavalry. He was to trick the Emperor into thinking that both Coalition armies were following him, and to make sure that the Coalition command knew where Napoleon was. The rest of the Coalition armies were to advance on Paris

The Coalition cavalry advance guard under General Pyotr Pahlen and the Crown Prince of Württemberg encountered the corps of Marshal Auguste de Marmont and Édouard Mortier at La Fère Champenoise at about 8 am on 25 March. Initially 5,700 Coalition cavalry and 36 guns, later reinforced by 2,500 more Austrian cavalry, faced 12,300 French infantry, 4.350 cavalry and 68 guns.[1]

The French cavalry were driven off the field and two light infantry regiments were forced to surrender. Marmont and Mortier could see that there were large numbers of enemy troops advancing on them, so retreated the rest of their troops in good order until about 2 pm. The Russian heavy cavalry of General Nikolai Preradovich’s 1st Cuirassier Division then arrived, bringing the Coalition force up to 12,000 men, and a heavy rain and hail storm started.

With rain and hail blowing into their faces, the French infantry were unable to fire their muskets. Two squares gave way under fire from Russian horse artillery, and many of the French infantry panicked and ran.

At the same time the sounds of another battle behind the Coalition cavalry could be heard. Neither side knew what this meant. Was it Napoleon marching to the rescue of Marmont and Mortier? In fat two French National Guard divisions, escorting a large convoy of guns and supply wagons, were being attacked by two cavalry divisions from the Army of Silesia.

The 5,000 inexperienced French troops, commanded by Generals Michel-Marie Pacthod and François-Pierre-Joseph Amey, fought gallantly against Baron Korff and General Ilarion Vasilchikov’s 4,000 cavalry and three horse artillery batteries. They had to abandon their supply wagons as they retreated in square. Eventually their retreat brought them into contact with the main Coalition cavalry force. Most of the Frenchmen were killed or forced to surrender.

The National Guardsmen fought very bravely, but the French suffered very heavy losses at La Fère Champenoise. Dominic Lieven estimates that they lost half of 23,000 men and almost all their guns in a fight with 16,000 Coalition cavalry.[2] F. Loraine Petre says that the French lost over 10,000 men killed, wounded and captured and 60 guns against 2,000 Coalition casualties.[3]

 

[1] Unless otherwise stated troop strengths are from D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), pp. 509-11.

[2] Ibid., p. 511.

[3] F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), p. 192.

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The Battle of Montereau 18 February 1814.

Napoleon defeated Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia at the Battles of Champaubert, Montmirail, Château-Thierry and Vauchamps between 10 and 14 February 1814. However, Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia had taken the offensive in the Seine sector.

Napoleon’s original plan had been to attack Schwarzenberg’s lines of communication once he had dealt with Blücher. However,. By 15 February it was clear that the French forces facing Schwarzenberg would not be able to hold his advance on Paris for the two to three days that this manoeuvre would take to organise. David Chandler points out that Napoleon ‘could not ignore a direct threat to Paris, and consequently had to adopt a less decisive plan.’[1]

Click here for a campaign map from West Point’s website and here for a map of the Battle of Montereau.

Napoleon left the corps of Marshals Édouard Mortier and Auguste de Marmont to cover Paris in case Blücher resumed the offensive. He took the Imperial Guard and General Emmanuel de Grouchy’s cavalry 47 miles south in 36 hours, with some of his infantry travelling in wagons and carts. He entered Gugnes at 3pm on 16 February.

Including the troops that were already in the Seine sector, Napoleon now had 60,000 men with which to attack the Army of Bohemia. He was heavily outnumbered, but Schwarzenberg’s four corps were widely spread. General Friedrich von Bianchi’s Austrians, General Karl Phillip von Wrede’s Bavarians, Prince Ludwig Pyotr Wittgenstein’s Russians and the Württembergers under their Crown Prince, were advancing along separate roads. Poor connecting roads, mud and the Seine made it hard for them to stay in contact with each other.

Wittgenstein, on the Coalition right (northern) flank had pushed on ahead of the rest of the Army of Bohemia. On 17 February its 4,300 strong advance guard, under General Pyotr Pahlen, was overwhelmed at Mormant by Napoleon’s advance guard, commanded by General Maurice-Etienne Gérard, with supported from Grouchy. Gérard and Grouchy then forced Wrede’s advance guard to retreat from Valjouan. [2]

Marshal Claude Victor’s corps was supposed to have taken part in these two actions, but moved slowly. Victor, Gérard and Grouchy, along with General Claude-Pierre Pajol’s cavalry, were then ordered to advance quickly to Montereau. Napoleon wanted to beat the retreating Army of Bohemia to Troyes.

Victor had been ordered to reach Montereau at 6 am on 18 February, but paused overnight, allowing the Württembergers time to prepare their defensive position. The first French troops to arrive were 1,500 cavalry, 3,000 National Guards and 800 gendarmes under Pajol. They were poorly trained, and were unable to make any progress against the Württemberg corps of 8,500 infantry, 1000 cavalry and 26 guns.

Victor’s advance guard did not arrive until 9 am. His initial attacks were unsuccessful. Napoleon, angry at his tardiness, replaced him with Gérard. Napoleon and the Guard arrived at 3 pm. The French now had 30,000 men and 70 guns on the field, and the Württembergers withdrew in the face of new attacks. They lost 5-6,000 men, 3,400 of them being captured, and 15 guns. French casualties were 2,500 killed and wounded.

The defenders had the Seine behind them, with only one bridge to retreat across. A final French cavalry charge, in which Pajol was so severely wounded that he took no further part in the war, captured both the Seine bridge and one over the Yonne before the Württembergers could blow them. F. Loraine Petre suggests that they should have retreated and destroyed the Seine bridge as soon as they were attacked, but Schwarzenberg had ordered them not to do so.[4]

On the same day the French reached the Seine at Nogent and Bray, only to find the bridges had been blown. As they then had no bridging train, the capture of the bridge at Montereau was vital. They also took a bridge over the Yonne as after the battle of Montereau.

Schwarzenberg now ordered his army to retreat to Troyes, less Wittgenstein’s corps, which was to link up with Blücher at Méry by 21 February. Napoleon, who now had 75,000 men with him, pursued rapidly with the intention of fighting Schwarzenberg near Troyes on 23 February. Schwarzenberg had 90,000 troops and Blücher 50,000. However, Alexander Seslavin, a Cossack commander regarded as ‘very reliable’ by his superiors, had reported that Napoleon now had 180,000 men.[5]

Petre notes that Schwarzenberg was worried about ‘the incalculable results of defeat.’[6] He was also concerned by the threat to his line of retreat of from Marshal Pierre Augereau’s corps in the south, ‘unnecessarily’ according to Chandler. Schwarzenberg therefore decided to withdraw his army to Troyes. He ordered Blücher to retreat his army, including Wittgenstein’s corps, across the Marne.

Chandler contends that ‘Schwarzenberg’s inglorious but probably justifiable caution thwarted Napoleon of a decisive action.’[7] He goes on to argue that the Emperor had outmanoeuvred and outfought two enemy armies that both outnumbered him, but could not win a military victory because he lacked the necessary manpower and France was war-weary.[8]

Napoleon could probably have now agreed a peace settlement that would have left him Emperor of France within its 1792 borders. He had reluctantly allowed his foreign minister, the Marquis de Caulaincourt, to negotiate on that basis after his defeat at La Rothière on 1 February. However, his subsequent victories meant that he was prepared to accept nothing less than France’s natural frontiers, stretching to the Rhine, and perhaps even wanted to keep Italy. He told his brother Joseph that:

If I had accepted the historical borders I would have taken up arms again two years later, and I would have said to the nation that this was not a peace that I had signed but a forced capitulation.[9]


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 978.

[2] Troop strengths in this and the previous paragraph are from are from Ibid.

[3] French casualties are from Ibid., p. 980, which says that Württemberg casualties were 6,000. Other numbers in the last two paragraphs are from F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), pp. 83-85.

[4] Ibid., p. 85.

[5] Ibid., p. 88.

[6] Ibid., p. 89.

[7] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 981.

[8] Ibid., p. 982.

[9] Quoted in D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 490.

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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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