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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 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 Bautzen 20-21 May 1813.

Following Napoleon’s victory at Lützen on 2 May 1813 Prince Ludwig Pyotr Wittgenstein’s Russo-Prussian army retreated to Bautzen, where it was reinforced by 13,000 Russians commanded by Prince Mikhail Barclay de Tolly.

Napoleon had received reinforcements from France, including a Young Guard division, four Old Guard battalions and two cavalry divisions, and also now had the support of the Saxon Army. He replaced the previous split of his force into separate Armies of the Elbe and Main with a single Army of the Elbe.[1]

It consisted of two wings. The northern one under Marshal Michel Ney contained 79,500 infantry, 4,800 cavalry and 26 artillery batteries. The main body, under the Emperor’s personal command, consisted of 107,000 infantry, 12,000 cavalry and 53 artillery batteries; 19,000 of the infantry and 4,000 of the cavalry were Guards.. His step-son Prince Eugène, who had performed poorly in this campaign, was sent to command in Italy.[2]

Napoleon’s main problem was that his lack of cavalry meant that he was uncertain of the location and strength of the enemy. He deduced that the bulk of the Allied army would fall back on Bautzen, with a portion covering Berlin.

On 12 May the Emperor sent forward a strong reconnaissance force under Marshal Jacques MacDonald in order to find the enemy. Ney’s wing was to prepare to move on Berlin.

Diplomatic negotiations continued. Prince Klemens von Metternich, the Austrian Foreign Minister, offered to mediate, sending delegates to both sides in order to discover what they would offer Austria. Dominic Lieven points out that the Austrian aims of restoring their lost provinces and of restoring the balance of power in Europe were supported by Austria and Russia, but opposed by France.[3]

Napoleon planned to send Armand Caulaincourt, one of his closest diplomatic advisers, to negotiate directly with Tsar Alexander rather than talking via Austria, but Caulaincourt had not departed by 16 May, when MacDonald discovered the enemy at Bautzen.

The Emperor ordered IV (General Henri-Gatien Bertrand, VI (Marshal Auguste Marmont) and XI (MacDonald) Corps to pin the Allies whilst Marshal Charles Nicolas Oudinot’s XII Corps out-flanked them to the south. Ney was ordered to bring his own III Corps and General Jacques Lauriston’s V Corps south. His II and VII Corps were supposed to continue to advance on Berlin, but Ney misunderstood his orders and brought them south; F. Loraine Petre argues that this error was to the French advantage, as it meant that more troops were concentrated against the main enemy force.[4]

Ney’s orders were complicated. On 18 May he was told to march on 20 May as if he were joining MacDonald, but on 21 May to move eastwards towards the enemy rear. Napoleon hoped that this would enable him to force the Allies back towards the neutral Austrian frontier, meaning that they would be either destroyed or forced to surrender.

Napoleon spent 19 May reconnoitring the enemy. They were in a strong defensive position, but he overestimated their strength, thinking that they had 150,000 men rather than the actual 96,000.[5] As Ney was not in position, he decided to fight a battle of attrition on 20 May, before enveloping the enemy the next day. The Allies intended to stand on the defensive at first, before counter-attacking on their right. They expected the French to attack their left, in order to force them away from Austria.

The French artillery bombardment began at noon on 20 May, with the main infantry attack starting at 3 pm. By 6 pm they had captured the city of Bautzen and the Allied front line. The Allies continued to reinforce their left. They knew that Ney was approaching from the north, but greatly underestimated his strength, so ignored him. David Chandler says that ‘Napoleon could hardly have hoped for anything better.’[6]Napoleon’s plan for 21 May was that VI, XI and XII Corps would pin the enemy, Ney’s III Corps would attack the Allied right and Lauriston’s V Corps would block their retreat. This should force them to strip their centre to strengthen their right flank.Bertrand’s IV Corps would deliver the main attack under the supervision of Marshal Nicolas Soult, who had carried out a similar manoeuvre on the Pratzen Heights at Austerlitz in 1805. A reserve consisting of three infantry divisions, one of them Old Guard and the others Young Guard, and three cavalry division, including a Guard one, supported by 80 guns was established.

The pinning attacks were successful. Oudinot’s XII Corps was forced back a little way, but this drew the Allies out of their prepared positions. IV Corps began its attack at 2 pm, supported by a Young Guard division and all available artillery. Prince Gebhard von Blücher’s Prussians were forced back, but he skilfully extracted them. The French attack lost momentum because the terrain made it difficult to move the artillery forward

The only explicit order given by Napoleon to Ney was that he should be at the village of Preititz by 11 am. His chief of staff, Baron Antoine-Henri Jomini, advised him to screen it and advance into the enemy rear, but Ney launched a series of frontal attacks. Lauriston also moved slowly.

The French attacks in the centre was held up until by a gallant Russian defence, but increasing casualties induced the Tsar to allow limited withdrawals from 4 pm. Napoleon, noting that the enemy resistance was weakening, committed his Imperial Guard against the Prussians.

The Allies were now forced to retreat, but Ney and Lauriston’s failure to advance into their rear meant that they were able to do so safely, extracting all their guns, apart from some that had been disabled.  A heavy rain storm stopped any pursuit.

Napoleon had again won a battle, but failed to rout the enemy because of the failure of his subordinates to block the enemy retreat and a lack of cavalry to pursue the defeated foe. Both sides suffered about 20,000 men dead and wounded.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 888-90.

[2] F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), pp. 100-2.

[3] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 317.

[4] Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813, p. 107.

[5] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 890.

[6] Ibid., p. 893.

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The Battle of Lützen 2 May 1813

By April 1813 Napoleon had rebuilt his army, but was at war with Prussia and Russia. His field forces in Germany consisted of the 121,000 strong Army of the River Main, 58,000 men in the Army of the Elbe, 20,000 troops in the detached I Corps, command by Marshal Louis Nicolas Davout, and 14,000 cavalry under General Horace Sebastiani. On 25 April they were faced by only 110,000 Russians and Prussians.[1]

However, the French were weak in cavalry. The shortage of light cavalry meant that Napoleon lacked intelligence about the enemy’s strength, positions and manoeuvres. Advancing French columns were harassed by enemy light cavalry because there were not enough French horsemen to protect them.

Napoleon’s initial plan was to advance on Berlin. His northern flank would be protected by the fortresses of Torgau, Wittenberg, Magdeburg and Hamburg and the southern one by the Army of the Elbe and I Corps.

He would turn the flank of the enemy army and relieve the besieged fortresses of Danzig, Thorn and Modlin on the Vistula. This would release 50,000 more troops for his field army, threaten the Russian line of communication and intimidate the German princes into supporting France.

David Chandler notes that Napoleon did not implement this plan for a number of reasons: it would require 300,000 men; he was doubtful of the quality of the troops that he did have; his German allies, Bavaria and Saxony, were reluctant; and he did not have enough troops to protect his communications against an enemy advance in the Dresden area.[2]

The Allies concentrated on the Leipzig-Dresden area of Saxony. This covered their communications back to Russia and to Austria, but left Prussia exposed. They had too few troops to protect both, so concentrated on the more important area.

Some Prussians wanted to attack, but Prince Mikhail Kutuzov, the Russian commander was cautious. Dominic Lieven comments that even the ‘ever-aggressive [Gebhard von] Blücher’ remembered that in 1805 the Austro-Russians had attacked before the Prussians were ready and had been defeated at Austerlitz.[3]

Kutuzov died on 28 April. He was replaced by Prince Ludwig Pyotr Wittgenstein, described by Lieven as being ‘[i]n many ways the most suitable candidate.’[4] He had won more victories than any other Russian general in 1812, spoke German and French and was popular with the Prussians. However, he was junior to two of the Russian corps commanders, Alexander Tormasov and Mikhail Miloradovich.

Consequently Wittgenstein was appointed to command only Blücher’s Prussians and Ferdinand Wintzingerode’s Russian corps. Tormasov and Miloradovich received their orders from Tsar Alexander, ‘sometimes without [Wittgenstein’s] knowledge’ according to F. Loraine Petre.[5]

Napoleon ordered his troops to cross the River Saale on 1 May. They encountered opposition, notably at Weissenfels, where Marshal Jean-Baptiste Bessiéres was killed, but the crossing was completed. Marshal Michel Ney’s III Corps occupied Lützen in order to protect the southern flank of an advance on Leipzig.

At 4 am on 2 May Napoleon told Ney to send out strong patrols towards Zwenkau and Pegau, and to occupy Lützen and the villages of Kaja, Rahna, Gross Görschen and Klein Görschen, which lay along a ridge. Ney did not send out the patrols, which would have found the enemy army, and kept three divisions at Lützen.Wittgenstein, learning that there was only a weak French force at Kaja, decided to attack it. His troops were supposed to start moving at 1 am and be in position by 7 am. Their columns became mixed up in the dark, and were not in position until 11 am.

The Allies could see only 2,000 French troops, so Wittgenstein ordered the Blücher’s Prussian cavalry to charge them at 11:45 am. However, they were shocked to find themselves faced by two divisions. The French were also surprised, because they had not sent out patrols.

Blücher  waited until artillery could be brought up, allowing the French time to deploy.  General Jean-Baptiste Girard’s division occupied and held the village of Starsiedl, but General Joseph Souham’s division was forced to withdraw from Gross Görschen.

Napoleon and the main French army were marching on Leipzig. Ney had been with Napoleon, but hurried back to his command on hearing the gunfire. He ordered a counter-attack , which led to a desperate action around the villages and along the ridge.

Napoleon quickly devised a plan to envelop the enemy. Ney’s III Corps should hold, with Marshal Auguste Marmont’s VI Corps coming up to support its right flank. Further to the French right, General Henri-Gatien Bertrand’s IV Corps would threaten the Allied left flank. Marshal Jacques MacDonald’s XI Corps would attack the Allied right. The Imperial Guard would reinforce the centre.

Napoleon reached the battlefield at 2:30 pm. He rode amongst his troops, encouraging them, boosting their morale and leading them back into the attack. Chandler quotes Marmont as saying that ‘[t]his was probably the day, of his whole career, in which Napoleon incurred the greatest personal danger on the field of battle.’[6]

Despite appeals from his commanders, Napoleon refused to commit the Guard too soon. The Allies were hampered by a wound to Blücher and the slow arrival of Russian reserves. The Tsar held back his Guards, apparently thinking that the battle was going well and wanting to personally lead them in the decisive attack.

The French flanking  forces were in position by 5:30 pm. At 6:00 pm the attack was launched by XI Corps on the French left, the Imperial Guard and VI Corps in the centre and IV Corps on the right. The assault, with heavy artillery support, threw the Allies back.

The French won the battle, but Chandler notes that Napoleon needed two more hours to make his victory complete. He lacked the cavalry to pursue the enemy in order to turn a victory into a rout.[7]

Petre and Lieven both argue that the delay in the initial Allied attack in the end disadvantaged the French. An earlier start to the battle would have meant that Napoleon and his main body of troops were closer to the action when it began. They would have arrived earlier and would have had more time to complete their victory. Better reconnaissance by Ney would also have allowed Napoleon to move earlier.[8]

The battle showed that Napoleon and his command system could still react far more quickly and flexibility to battlefield developments than his enemies. He had won a victory, but lack of time and cavalry meant that it was not a decisive one, and the French suffered heavy casualties.

Chandler estimates that there were 115,000 French and 97,000 Allied troops in the vicinity, altthough not all of them engaged in combat. He reckons that 20,000 French and 18,000 Allied troops were killed or wounded.[9] Charles Esdaile argues that the French casualties were high because the inexperience of their troops meant that they had to use ‘clumsy and unsophisticated’ tactics.[10]

The Allies retired towards Dresden. An action took place at Colditz on 5 May between French troops under Prince Eugène and the Russian rearguard, commanded by Miloradovich. The Allies did not stop in Dresden and failed to destroy its bridges. Napoleon reached it on 8 May. Two days later the King of Saxony declared for Napoleon.

The Allied retreat ended on 13 Mat at Bautzen, a strong defensive position. They were reinforced by another 13,000 Russian troops under Prince Mikhail Barclay de Tolly.


[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 874-75.

[2] Ibid., p. 875.

[3] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 311.

[4] Ibid., p. 313.

[5] F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), p. 58.

[6] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 884.

[7] Ibid., pp. 886-87.

[8] Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814, p. 315; Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813, p. 85.

[9] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 1120.

[10] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 501.

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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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