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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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