Tag Archives: Yorck

The Battle of Laon 9-10 March 1814.

Napoleon won a pyrrhic victory over Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s Army of Silesia at Craonne on 7 March 1814. The French held the battlefield at the end of the day, but suffered more casualties than they could afford.

Napoleon thought that he had fought Blücher’s rearguard, and that the Army of Silesia was heading north. He realised that he could not win a major battle against it. However, he believed that if he pursued it and inflicted another defeat on its rearguard he could then turn south to deal with defeated Prince Karl Phillip zu Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia, which was advancing on Paris.

Blücher was not withdrawing, but had drawn up his army in a strong position just south of Laon. He placed the corps of Generals Friedrich von Kleist and Johann Ludwig Yorck along a steep ridge to the east of Laon. Some of their troops were hidden on a reverse slope. General Friedrich von Bülow’s corps held the centre, in front of Laon, and General Ferdinand von Winzengerode’s corps was positioned on flatter ground to the west. The corps of Prince Fabien von Osten-Sacken and Count Alexandre de Langeron were held in reserve.

Blücher had 85,000 men and 150 guns. Napoleon had only 37,000 troops with him. [1] Another 10,000 under Marshal Auguste de Marmont had been detached from the main body in order to prevent Blücher from retreating to Rheims. A mixture of bad weather, swampy terrain, Russian cavalry and inertia by Marmont meant that the Emperor was unsure of Marmont’s location.

On 9 March Napoleon’s leading troops, commanded by Marshals Édouard Mortier and Michel Ney, encountered the enemy. The Emperor launched a series of attacks. Blücher thought wrongly that Napoleon had 90,000 men, so feared that this attack was intended to pin his army whilst Napoleon enveloped it. He consequently acted very cautiously.

Marmont’s VI Corps arrived at about 2 pm. The troops and their commander were tired, and halted for the night after taking the village of Athies. Marmont failed to secure the narrow Festieux defile to his rear.

By the early evening reconnaissance reports had informed Blücher of the enemy’s weakness. He therefore ordered Yorck and Kleist’s corps, supported by Langeron, Sacken and cavalry, to attack Marmont.

VI Corps was caught foraging and thrown back. Kleist’s corps cut the Rheims road, and Coalition cavalry headed for the Festieux defile. It appeared that VI Corps’ line of retreat would be cut, resulting in its destruction.

However, complete disaster was averted by the actions of Colonel Charles Nicolas Fabvier. Marmont had sent him with 1,000 men and two guns to link up with Napoleon. On hearing the sound of the guns Fabvier retraced his steps and managed to reopen the Rheims road. At the Festieux defile the Coalition cavalry were beaten off by 125 Old Guardsmen who had been escorting a convoy.

The bulk of VI Corps were able to escape, but Marmont lost a third of his men, 45 guns and 120 caissons. David Chandler says that the whole French army was put at risk by ‘Marmont’s irresponsible conduct…it is a wonder that Napoleon left him in command of his formation.’[2]

Napoleon did not learn of VI Corps’ fate until 5 am the next day, 10 March. He decided to hold his position in order to take the pressure off Marmont. Blücher intended to aggressively attack that day, which Chandler and Dominic Lieven agree would have resulted in a major French defeat.[3]

However, the 72-year-old Blücher was taken ill overnight. His chief of staff General August von Gneisenau took command, but he lacked Blücher’s dynamism and confidence. Fighting on 10 March was therefore confined to skirmishing, and Napoleon was able to extract his army after dark, and retreat to Soissons. He still suffered a significant defeat, losing 6,000 men compared to 4,000 from the numerically larger enemy.

[1] Unlesss otherwise stated troop numbers are from D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 989-91.

[2] Ibid., p. 990.

[3] Ibid; D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 502.

[1] Unlesss otherwise stated troop numbers are from D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), pp. 989-91.



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The Battle of Montmirail 11 February 1814.

After his victory at Champaubert on 10 February 1814 Napoleon’s army was in the middle of Prince Gebhardt von Blücher’s widely scattered Army of Silesia. General Johan-David-Ludwig Yorck’s 18,000 strong Prussian corps was at Chateau-Thierry and Viffort. Prince Fabian von Osten-Sacken had moved his Russian corps of 18,000 men and 90 guns west from Montmirail towards Trilport. The remainder of Blücher’s army was heading from Vertus, to the east of Champaubert, south west towards La-Fère-Champenoise.

Blücher ordered the troops moving away from Vertus to turn round and return there. Yorck was told to join Sacken at Montmirail, and to keep the bridge at Château-Thierry open in case they had to retreat across the Marne. Sacken’s instructions were to clear the road to Vertus with support from Yorck. They made no mention of any potential retreat across the Marne.

Napoleon made what David Chandler calls ‘the wise decision to concentrate on destroying the Prussian forces lying to the west.’[1] Blücher could have evaded an attack to the east by retreating to Châlons, with Sacken and Yorck being able to retire across the Marne. He therefore left Marshal August de Marmont with 4,000 men to screen Blücher. The other 20,000 would attack towards Montmirail.

Marshal Jacques MacDonald, who had been retreating towards Meaux, was ordered to take Château-Thierry and its bridge in order to block the enemy’s line of retreat.

Yorck, whose orders arrived late, sent a message to Sacken suggesting that he move towards Château-Thierry so that they would meet sooner. Sacken, however, obeyed his orders and headed east. When he encountered the French at the village of Marchais beside the junction of the roads to Château-Thierry and Montmirail, he deployed his troops south of the east-west road, increasing his separation from Yorck.

Mud had hampered Napoleon’s advance, so he was initially outnumbered, but  his force of 5,000 infantry and 4,500 cavalry of the Old Guard, 1,800 conscripts and 36 guns had a qualitative advantage.

Napoleon was aware that he was taking a significant risk in fighting when outnumbered. Yorck could arrive before French reinforcements, making poor odds even worse for the Emperor.

In the late morning and early afternoon Sacken attacked, taking Marchais by 11am. Napoleon made some attempts to retake Marchais, but mostly defended. By 2pm Yorck’s advance guard was approaching. However, he moved slowly, bringing up only a small proportion of his corps. Dominic Lieven says that the road that he was advancing on was shown to be paved on Coalition maps, but was actually a muddy track.[2]

At 3pm Marshal Édouard Mortier arrived with French reinforcements. Napoleon now had a reserve, so could attack. Marshal Michel Ney led six battalions of the Old Guard against Sacken’s left flank, which he had weakened in order to bolster the defences of Marchais. The French broke through Sacken’s first line. They then repulsed Russian counter attacks with the help of Imperial Guard cavalry.

Napoleon now had nearly 20,000 men on the field, and Sacken’s corps was in danger of being destroyed. Yorck made only limited attacks, but they were enough to allow most of Sacken’s troops to escape. Chandler describes this as ‘a victory for superior tactical skill, superior training and discipline.’[3]

Napoleon wanted to completely destroy Sacken and Yorck’s corps, but this relied on Macdonald cutting their line of retreat by beating them to Château-Thierry. He moved slowly, allowing most of the Coalition troops to get across the bridge, which they then burned.

Troop numbers quoted so far have been from Chandler.[4] F. Loraine Petre quotes one source as giving Sacken 16,300 men and 90 guns, but notes that he lost about 4,300 men on 11 and February and had 13,679 available on 16 February, giving him 18,000 at Montmirail.  Petre notes that estimates of the size of Napoleon’s force range from 12,300 to 20,000. [5]

Chandler says that Napoleon lost 2,000 men and Sacken 4,000 at Montmirail: it is not clear if the latter figure includes losses from Yorck’s corps. He states that 3,000 Prussians, 20 Coalition guns and a large number of wagons were captured at Château-Thierry. He does not give French casualties at the latter battle.[6]

Petre’s casualty numbers are more detailed, but not radically different: 2,000 Frenchmen, 2,000 Russians and 900 Russians killed and wounded and 900 Russians captured, with 12 Russian guns lost at Montmirail. He says that the Prussians lost 1,250 men, 6 guns and some of their wagons, the Russians 1,500 men, 3 guns and most of their wagons and the French 600 men at Château-Thierry. His figures add up to Coalition losses of 6,550 men and 22 guns against French casualties of 2,600.[7]

The burning of the bridge at Château-Thierry delayed Napoleon’s pursuit by a day, allowing Sacken and Yorck to escape. Napoleon blamed Macdonald for the failure to completely destroy Sacken and Yorck’s corps at Chateau-Thierry, Ralph Ashby notes that Napoleon was always quick to blame others, but adds that ‘Macdonald’s lack of action does appear to be inexcusable.’[8]

[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 970.

[2] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 488.

[3] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 973.

[4] Troop strengths are from Ibid., pp. 970-73.

[5] F. L. Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814 (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914), p. 64.

[6] Chandler, Campaigns, pp. 973-74.

[7] Petre, Napoleon at Bay 1814, pp. 66-67.

[8] R. Ashby, Napoleon against Great Odds: The Emperor and the Defenders of France, 1814 (Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2010), p. 100.



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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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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.


Filed under War History

The Battle of Katzbach 26 August 1813

Prince Gebhardt Blücher’s Army of Silesia, comprising Prussian and Russian troops, began to advance towards Saxony on 13 August 1813, three days before the armistice between France and the Coalition of Austria, Prussia, Russia and Sweden expired. Blücher justified his move into the neutral zone established by the Truce of Pläswitz on the grounds that the French had committed several minor breaches of the armistice

The Coalition’s Trachenberg Plan stated that its armies should avoid battle with the main French body, commanded by Napoleon, but should seek battle with isolated enemy corps. By August 21 Blücher realised that he was advancing on Napoleon, so withdrew.

Napoleon had created the Army of the Bober, commanded by Marshal Jacques MacDonald to guard his left flank. MacDonald’s orders were to push Blücher back to Jauer, and then pin his army in Silesia.

On 26 August MacDonald, believing that Blücher was still retreating, crossed the River Katzbach in pursuit. Blücher, however, realising that he was not facing the main French army, had decided to take the offensive in accordance with both his natural desire to attack and the stipulations of the Trachenberg Plan. The two armies both thought that the other was on the defensive, so both were surprised when they encountered each other advancing.

MacDonald’s army, consisting of III, V and XI Corps and II Cavalry Corps, was widely spread, and poor roads slowed down its advance. MacDonald detached 12,000 men from V and XI Corps to cover his right flank, which was not threatened, and ordered his largest force, III Corps, to cross the Katzbach at Liegnitz and attack the enemy’s right flank at Jauer. The rest of his army was supposed to pin the Coalition forces in place.[1]

General Joseph Souham, who had taken over III Corps from Marshal Michel Ney because Napoleon did not want to have two Marshals with the same army, claimed that the Liegnitz crossing was impassable because of heavy rain, although General Fabian von Osten-Sacken’s Russian corps managed to cross there two days later.

Souham decided to move back towards the rest of MacDonald’s army, but found itself in a traffic jam. Only one of its four divisions managed to cross the river in time to play a role in the battle, and it had to leave its artillery behind.

Once the French had crossed the Katzbach they had to climb about 75m up a steep and heavily wooded slope to a featureless plateau. Dominic Lieven notes that they had to use a path that is still difficult by car in muddy or icy conditions.[2]

On the plateau the French encountered the 55,000 Coalition troops of Count Johann Ludwig Yorck’s Prussian Corps and Sacken’s Russians, who were also advancing. Only about 27,000 out of 67,000 French troops available made it to the plateau by 2pm, when the fighting began.

The heavy rain obscured visibility. Blücher sent Karl von Müffling, his quartermaster-general, forward on a reconnaissance mission. Müffling later wrote that:

‘I was mounted on a mouse-coloured horse, and had on a grey cloak, so that in the pouring rain I was not visible at 100 paces.’[3]

The rain meant that muskets could not be fired and had to be used as clubs, so the fighting was mainly hand to hand. The French were forced to retreat, with many being drowned as they tried to cross the Katzbach, which had risen because of the rain.

Further south French troops under General Jacques-Alexander-Bernard Lauriston attacked Coalition forces under Count Alexandre de Langeron, a French emigré in Russian service. Langeron had fewer infantry  but more cavalry, and was in a strong defensive position. However, he initially gave ground, until he was sent reinforcements at 4pm. He then counter-attacked and recaptured most of the ground lost.

F. Lorraine Petre says that the Coalition captured at least 12-14,000 prisoners and 36 guns. Their own casualties were not recorded, but were heavy.[4] Wikipedia gives casualties of 15,000 French and 4,000 Coalition troops. Lieven notes that the French defeat at the Katzbach was turned into ‘catastrophe’ by the pursuit.[5]  It lasted until the first week in September, by when MacDonald’s army was back in Saxony and had lost 35,000 men.[6]

Langeron, who had been dilatory in the battle, performed well in the pursuit. Blücher gave great credit to Sacken for the victory at the Katzbach. He was promoted by the Tsar and cheered by Yorck’s Prussian troops.

[1] Troops strengths are from F. L. Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign in Germany, 1813 (London: Arms and Armour Press, 1974, first published 1912), pp. 252-53.

[2] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 379.

[3] Quoted in Ibid., p. 381.

[4] Petre, Napoleon’s Last Campaign, p. 256.

[5] Lieven, Russia, p. 385.

[6] Ibid., p. 388.


Filed under War History

The Start of Napoleon’s 1813 German Campaign

Napoleon had to rebuild his army following the failure of his 1812 campaign in Russia. The 1813 class of conscripts had already been called up, meaning that 137,000 men were nearing the end of their training at the start of 1813.[1]

More men were found from the National Guard, a home defence militia, the navy and Italy. Troops were also transferred from Spain to the German front. Others were found by calling up the 1814 class of conscripts early, along with men who had managed to evade the draft for health or other reasons in earlier years.

The new army was large and would fight bravely, but many of the infantry were either young and inexperienced or else old. It was harder to replace the horses than the men lost in Russia. The lack of cavalry would prove to be a major problem for Napoleon in 1813.

The French Empire managed to replace the cannons lost in Russia, but they needed horses to pull them, as did supply wagons, creating logistical difficulties.

Napoleon also had problems with the quality of his generals. According to David Chandler, the mid-ranking officers were still good, but the marshals were tired and past their best, whilst the junior ones were inexperienced.[2]

Whilst rebuilding his army, Napoleon left Marshal Joachim Murat in command in Germany. The Emperor had hoped that Murat would be able to hold the Russians along the River Vistula, but he was forced to retreat to Posen (now Poznan). He then handed over command to Napoleon’s step-son Prince Eugène, and returned to his kingdom of Naples.

Eugène had too few troops to fight, and the frozen rivers were no help to the defender. Despite orders from Napoleon to hold, he was forced to withdraw his forces, apart from some isolated garrisons, behind the River Elbe.

Tsar Alexander I of Russia was, according to Dominic Lieven, effectively his own foreign minister. He was with his army, whilst the official foreign minister, Nikolai Rumiantsev, was in St Petersburg. Alexander’s aim was to force France behind its natural frontiers. Rumiantsev thought that the Tsar was too focused on Napoleon, paid too little attention to the Ottoman Empire and Persia and was too keen to satisfy the Austrians and British. [3]

Prussia had been forced to contribute a corps to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, but on 30 December 1812 its commander, General Ludwig Yorck, signed the Convention of Tauroggen with Russia, making his troops neutrals. He acted without the consent of King Friedrich Wilhelm III, but the news was received enthusiastically in Prussia.

Friedrich Wilhelm, according to Lieven, ‘detested Napoleon and…liked and admired Alexander…[but] was a great pessimist.[4] He hesitated until the Russian had reached Prussia, but on 28 February 1813 Russia and Prussia signed the Treaty of Kalisz. Five days later the Russian entered Berlin.

The main sticking point in the negotiations was Poland. Friedrich Wilhelm did not want to lose any of the territory that Prussia had gained from the 18th century partitions of Poland. Alexander, however, thought that the only way to deal with Polish nationalism without weakening Russian security was to have a Polish kingdom whose monarch was the Russian Tsar. The agreement was that Prussia would be restored to its 1806 size, receiving northern German territory and population to compensate it for any losses in Poland.

The treaty required both parties to attempt to bring Austria into their alliance. The Austrians, however, were cautious for now.

On 16 March Prussia declared war on France. Napoleon had limited the size of its army to 42,000 after defeating it in 1806, but allowed it to recruit more in late 1812. The Prussians had also secretly created a reserve by forcing a proportion of their soldiers to retire each year. They were therefore able to field 80,000 well trained troops, backed by the Landwehr, a conscript militia and volunteer units.

Charles Esdaile argues that only a ‘very small number’ joined because of German nationalism, but Prussia did have 270,000 troops by the summer.[5]

Defensive manoeuvring continued until early April. By then Eugène had withdrawn from the Elbe because the Prussians were massing near Dresden, and had deployed his troops in a strong defensive position with his right flank on the River Saale.

[1] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 866.

[2] Ibid., p. 868.

[3] D. C. B. Lieven, Russia against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London: Penguin, 2010), pp. 285-90.

[4] Ibid., p. 293.

[5] C. J. Esdaile, Napoleon’s Wars: An International History, 1803-1815 (London: Allen Lane, 2007), p. 494.

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The End of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign

After a fierce action, the rearguard of Napoleon’s Grande Armée crossed the River Berezina on 29 November. It seemed to the 55,000 men who had made it over the Berezina that the worst was over. Armand Caulaincourt, formerly Napoleon’s Ambassador to Russia, and a member of his entourage, wrote that ‘After the crossing of the Berezina all faces brightened.’[1]

In fact, although the Berezina was the last major action of Napoleon’s Russian Campaign, his army continued to lose men in rearguard actions and to the weather. The temperature was still falling and was recorded as being -30° C (-22° F) on 30 November and -37.5° C (-35.5° F) on 6 December by Dr Louis Lagneau.[2]

Napoleon’s original plan had been to defeat Admiral Pavel Chichagov’s army 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 Vilnius.

He reached Smorgoni on 5 December. He then informed his marshals that he intended to return to Paris. He would take only a small entourage and escort, posing as Caulaincourt’s secretary. He reached Paris late on 18 December.

David Chandler notes that the marshals and most subsequent commentators agree that Napoleon’s decision to return to Paris was correct. His subordinates could handle the rest of the retreat, and he was needed in Paris to recruit new troops and to rally public opinion.[3]

The Emperor left Marshal Joachim Murat in command. Adam Zamoyski says that he would have preferred to appoint Prince Eugène but feared that Murat would mutiny if put under Eugène’s command.[4]

Chandler argues that Murat was more suited to pursuing a defeated enemy than to carrying out a retreat. He attributes Napoleon’s decision to appoint Murat instead of Eugène to the influence of Marshal Louis Berthier, his chief of staff.[5]

Murat’s orders were to make for the supply base at Vilnius. About 20,000 of the men who had crossed Berezina failed to make it; the survivors reached it between 8-10 December. It contained four million rations of biscuits, nearly as much meat and plenty of clothes and weapons. However, the starving troops rioted. Many drank themselves into a stupor and died of exposure. [6]

Many of the Grande Armée’s losses were caused by typhus. In 2001 a mass grave was found by construction workers in Vilnius. It was initially assumed that it contained either Jews murdered by the Nazis or victims of Stalin’s terror.

However, the grave contained French coins and belt buckles from the Napoleonic era, showing that the corpses were of some of Napoleon’s soldiers. A scientific analysis showed that they died of typhus. See this article from Slate.com for more details.

Napoleon had ordered Murat to allow the army to rest and recuperate in Vilnius for at least eight days. Murat, however, was concerned by the threat from Cossacks and ordered the retreat to resume on the night of 9 December; 20,000 men wounded earlier in the campaign were left behind in the hospitals.

The army crossed the River Niemen and left Russia on 14 December. The pursuing Russians, by now reduced to 40,000 men, stopped at the frontier. [7]

The forces on the flanks of the main force also withdrew from Russia. General Ludwig Yorck, commanding 17,000 Prussians and 60 guns, was surrounded on 25 December. After five days of negotiations  he signed the Convention of Tauroggen, making his troops neutrals. He acted without the consent of his king, but the news was received enthusiastically in Prussia.

Prince Karl Schwarzenberg, commanding the Austrians also signed an armistice with the Russians. Austria and Prussia would fight against France in 1813.

According to Chandler, Napoleon took 655,000 troops into Russia, including reinforcements. Only 25,000 out of the 450,000 in the central army group, commanded by Napoleon himself, crossed back over the Niemen. Losses in the flanking forces were high, but not quite as bad; 68,000 of them returned, making a total of 93,000 who retreated out of Russia.

Of the approximately 570,000 who did not, 370,000 died in action or of illness or exposure. The other 200,000, including 48 generals, were captured; about half of them died in captivity.

Napoleon also lost 200,000 horses and 1,050 of the 1,300 guns that he took into Russia. The Russians captured 929, the others being destroyed. New guns were built and new soldiers recruited, albeit inexperienced ones. The horses were the hardest to replace

Russian casualties were 150,000 killed and at least twice as many wounded or frost bitten. Chandler says that the impact of the campaign on Russian civilians cannot be calculated.[8]

Click here for a link to a graphic created by Charles Minard in 1869. It shows the routes taken by the Grande Armée to and from Moscow, with the thickness of the lines indicating its strength at each point. This is then compared with the temperatures throughout the campaign, shown in the chart at the bottom. The temperature is given in Reamurs. Multiply by 1.25 to obtain the temperature in Celsius.

The next and final post on this campaign will discuss why it failed.

[1] Quoted in A. Zamoyski, 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March on Moscow (London: HarperCollins, 2004), p. 481.

[2] Ibid., pp. 482, 504.

[3] D. Chandler, The Campaigns of Napoleon (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1966), p. 849.

[4] Zamoyski, 1812, pp. 495-96.

[5] Chandler, Campaigns, p. 850.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid., pp. 850-51.

[8] Ibid., pp. 852-53.


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