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The Fall of Paris 30-31 March 1814 and Napoleon’s Abdication.

Napoleon retreated to St Dizier after being defeated by Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia at Arcis-sur-Aube on 20-21 March 1814. After some prevarication the Coalition decided that Schwarzenberg’s army and Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia should advance on Paris.

Captured dispatches revealed that Napoleon intended to threaten the Coalition lines of supply back to the Rhine. They also indicated 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.

General Ferdinand von Winzengerode was ordered to pursue Napoleon with 8,000 cavalry.[1] 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 Army of Bohemia defeated the French corps of Marshals Auguste de Marmont and Édouard Mortier at La Fère Champenoise on 25 March, leaving the road to Paris open. Napoleon’s only chance of holding his capital was to return to it. Dominic Lieven argues that he would have been ‘likely to galvanise and coordinate the defence, and overawe potential traitors in the city’ even if he had rushed there on his own, without bringing reinforcements to the garrison.[2]

Winzengerode was defeated by Napoleon on 26 March, losing 1,500 men and 9 guns.[3] However, Napoleon did not learn of La Fère Champenoise and the threat to Paris until the next day. He began to force march his army towards Paris, but it was too late to get there in time.

Napoleon’s Empress Marie-Louise and their son, the King of Rome, left Paris on 29 March. They were followed by Napoleon’s brother Joseph and much of the government the next day.

By the evening on 29 March the Coalition had 107,000 men outside Paris. Marmont had 12,000 regulars and Mortier 11,000, but many of the 19,000 strong garrison were poorly trained National Guardsmen.[4]

The heights of Montmartre in the north and Romainville in the centre and the stone buildings of the city benefitted the defender. However, little had been done to fortify the city. F. Loraine Petre argues that Napoleon did not want ‘the people to think that he, the conqueror of Europe, had to look to earthworks for the defence of his capital.’[5]

Many of the Coalition troops were not ready to attack in the morning, but General Nikolai Raevsky’s Russian corps beat Marmont’s corps to the village of Romainville in the morning and also took Pantin. They held these against French counter attacks, but the Coalition were unable to make further progress until 3 pm, when all their corps were in position.

The French were forced back to Montmartre and Marmont requested an armistice, which was agreed at 2 am on 31 March. The Coalition had suffered 8,000 casualties in taking Paris.[6]

Napoleon had force marched his army as far as Troyes by 30 March, but it was too exhausted to continue further. He pressed on, initially with just two cavalry squadrons, and then with only five officers in light carriages. Early on 31 March he learnt of the surrender of Paris, and returned to Fontainebleau.

The Emperor had 36,000 troops with him on 1 April, rising to 60,000 two days later. He wanted to fight on, but the Coalition had 145,000 men in Paris, making his position impossible.[7]

The Coalition, which had previously offered to allow Napoleon to keep his throne if he accepted France’s 1792 frontiers, had not yet decided whether or not to restore the Bourbons. Their main objective was to install a regime that would be accepted by the French population and would ensure peace.

One possibility was a regency for Napoleon’s infant son, but this was risky whilst Napoleon was alive. On 1 April the Coalition announced that it would not deal with him or any of his family. The next day the French Senate, ‘stage-managed’ by Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, Napoleon’s former foreign minister, deposed Napoleon and invited King Louis XVIII to return to France.[8]

Napoleon, informed by his Marshals that he had no choice, abdicated on 4 April, initially in favour of his son. The Coalition refused to accept this, and he renounced the throne for himself and his heirs two days later.

On 16 April the Treaty of Fontainebleau was ratified. Napoleon retained his title of Emperor with sovereignty over the island of Elba, a pension of two million francs per annum and a 600 man guard. He departed for Elba on 28 April.

Lieven argues that giving Napoleon Elba was a ‘serious blunder.’ He notes, however, that Tsar Alexander wanted to be ‘generous to a defeated foe.’ The British were not prepared to allow Napoleon his preference of living in Britain, whilst the terms of Marmont’s surrender prevented ‘any constraint on Napoleon’s freedom.’[9]

As a general Napoleon fought a very skilful military campaign in 1814, but as a statesman he left himself with an impossible task. He rejected several offers of terms that were far better than he could have obtained by fighting on as he was unwilling to accept a peace that he had not won on the battlefield.

France was exhausted and outnumbered, making the outcome of the campaign a foregone conclusion. Napoleon was not strong enough to win a decisive victory and could not have afforded a major defeat. He was beaten in the campaign even without one.

 

[1] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), pp. 518-19.

[2] Ibid., p. 511.

[3] F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), p. 195.

[4] Ibid., p. 199.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lieven, Russia, p. 515.

[7] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 1001.

[8] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 528.

[9] Lieven, Russia, pp. 518-19.

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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 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 Rheims 13 March 1814.

After his defeat at Laon on 9-10 March Napoleon was able to retreat to Soissons because of the inertia of General August von Gneisenau, who took command of the Army of Silesia after Prince Gebhardt von Blücher, its commander, was taken ill.

Napoleon remained at Soissons until he learnt that General Emmanuel de St Priest’s corps had moved to Rheims, within striking distance of Soissons, on 12 March. St Priest had been positioned at St Dizier in order to link the Army of Silesia with Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia.

Defeating St Priest would break the Coalition communications and threaten the Army of Silesia’s left rear and the Army of Bohemia’s right flank. Napoleon had been reinforced to 40,000 men since Laon, whilst St Priest had 12,000, a mixture of Russians and conscript Prussian Landwehr.[1]

Napoleon moved rapidly to Rheims, and launched a surprise attack on 13 March. St Priest’s Prussian Landwehr had dispersed to forage for food, and were easily beaten. The Russians put up sterner resistance, but were overwhelmed. The French inflicted 6,000 casualties and suffered only 700.[2] St Priest was amongst the wounded , and died on 29 March. This victory boosted French confidence and caused both Coalition armies to halt their advances.


[1] Troop strengths are from D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 503.

[2] Casualties are from D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 993.

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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 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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