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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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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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