1814 CAMPAIGN IN FRANCE
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On August 12, 1813, Austria joined the Coalition of Britain, Russia and Prussia, and declared war on France. During the Autumn of 1813 the huge armies had outgrown existing command structures. Napoleon's army of sixteen corps had reached 550,000 men, including 70,000 cavalry and 12,000 guns. The Guard had grown to nearly 60,000 men. This is little more than a miracle considering his losses in 1812.

The Coalition armies totaled almost 600,000 men. This included the Army of Bohemia under Schwarzenberg (250,000 men); the Army of the North, commanded by an ex-marshal ofFrance, Crown Prince Bernadotte of Sweden (130,000) men; Blücher's Army of Silesia (about 110,000 men), and another 100,000 men scattered in garrisons and detachments in Germany.

Following the strategic failure of the Dresden campaign, French disasters at Katzbach and Kulm, their defeat at Leipzig - the largest battle of the Napoleonic wars - by November 1813, Napoleon gave up Germany, retreating through Hanau and across the Rhine. He reentered France with slightly fewer than 70,000 men, deaf to Coalition offers of peace based on France's natural boundaries. He would remain unrealistic throughout the coming campaign as his situation worsened and the offers became less generous and less genuine.

He had left over 100,000 men in garrisons throughout Germany. Additional garrisons were left along the Rhine as the army retreated into France. Assuming that the Coalition would go into winter quarters, he would return to Paris and reorganize a "new" army while his marshals contained any probe or isolated advance. He was determined to regain his empire in the spring.

Leaving his army in the hands of his marshals, Napoleon rushed to Paris to reorganize the defence of France. The Coalition force had been reduced to about 250,000 by garrisons and forces left to mask the French garrisons. But there would be no winter quarters. The Coalition armies began crossing the Rhine between December 20, 1813 and January 1,1814.

Napoleon called-up conscripts to augment a core of experienced soldiers promoted to officer and nco ranks. On paper he could raise almost one million men this way. In reality only 120,000 troops were obtained. Other drastic measures were required to fill the ranks, which would now contain 14 and 15 year-old boys and men previously invalided from the army.

The Coalition forces regrouped. Their armies swelled, according to Houssaye's "1814," to 652,000 men in the first line and 235,000 in reserve; 887,000 in all. This included contingents from territories previously occupied by the French, and foreign troops that had previously served in the French army. No more than half this number actually carried the fight west of the River Seine.

The Theater of Operations

Moscow and Paris held very different positions in their respective countries. The Russians had withstood the loss of their capital—the French could not. Paris was the administrative nerve center, the political and emotional heart of France. Both sides devised their campaigns accordingly. The road network, the towns at major intersecting crossroads, and rivers funneled troop movements during the campaign.

(Note: Routes cited are modern numbers found on current highway maps. They may disagree with the historical route numbers printed on the game map.) Three primary east/west roads converged on Paris. They were:

[1] The Chaumont, Bar sur Aube, Troyes, Sens, Fontainebleau, Paris Road south of the Seine (N19, N60, N6, N7) with a major spur parallel and north of the Seine through Montereau and Melun (N6 to Paris) and a major spur following the Aube fromBar sur Aube, through Brienneand Arcis sur Aube to Mery (D396, D960 & D441) bypassing Troyes.

[2] A more northerly route through Troyes, Nogent sur Seine, Provins Nangis, Guignes, Paris, crossing and north of the Seine (Nl9).

[3] The St Dizier, Vitry, Châlons sur Marne, Chateau Thierry, Meaux, Paris Road which followed the southern bank of the Marne after Châlons (N44 & N3).

Laon forms the apex of a triangle, its northwest to southeast side formed by the Vitry, Reims, Laon Road (N44), the northeast to southwest side formed by the Loans, Soissons, Villers Cotterets, Paris Road (N2), and its base formed by the Châlons, Paris Road (N3). The primary north-south roads included the Troyes, Arcis sur Aube,Châlons sur Marne Road (N77), the Reims, Epernay, Nogent, Sens Road (D51), and the Soissons, Chateau Thierry, Montmirail Road (D1—“Route 37” on game map). The Seine, Aube, Marne, and Aisne generally flow from the eastern plateau toward Paris and the channel coast.

Due to their important river crossings, operations tended to focus on the towns of Bar sur Aube, Troyes, Arcis sur Aube, and Nogent in the south; St. Dizier, Vitry, and Châlons in the east; Reims, Laon and Soissons in the north; and Chateau Thierry, Meaux, Guignes and, of course, Paris in the west.

Napoleon’s Advance to Contact

As the Coalition armies surged across the Rhine and onto French soil, Napoleon was in the capital, trying to organize the administration and recruitment of his army. His Marshals, scattered across the eastern provinces, could barely delay the Coalition onslaught. As usual they quarrelled among themselves and fell back—only Victor fought well. Finally, Napoleon’s arrival at the front could be delayed no longer. On Monday, January 24th, he left his brother Joseph in charge in Paris and left for the front. Imperial headquarters moved in to the Hôtel de la Préfecture in Châlons sur Marne the next evening. Here they learned that Blücher was approaching St. Dizier, and Schwarzenberg, Bar-sur-Aube. These two points are only 34 miles apart. Napoleon resolved to strike quickly before the armies could close the gap and unite.

On the 26th, the Emperor moved to Vitry-le-François, concentrating 41,000 men between Châlons and St. Dizier. Leaving Marmont to protect his communications with Paris, he moved to attack Blücher at St. Dizier. He had Ney’s Young Guard with him at Châlons. Marmont’s VI Corps stood on the left of the army’s front, near E2929, after falling back from Bar-le-Duc through Revigny. Victor’s II Corps had fallen back from St. Dizier toward Vitry-le-François (about E2535). Gerard’s Paris Reserve Corps was still organizing toward Troyes. Mortier with the Old Guard, in Troyes, represented the army’s right wing.

From St. Dizier, Blücher's army of Silesia advanced rapidly southward through Montierender to Brienne, toward a rendezvous with Schwarenberg's approaching Army of Bohemia, closing the gap between himself and the most advanced of Schwarzenberg’s forces to 12 miles. On 28 January, Gyulai was in Vendeuvre and Württemberg in Bar-sur-Aube. (Set-up Scenario One to view the situation.)

Napoleon descended on Blücher’s rear, siezing St. Dizier and Montierender. Blücher failed to grasp the significance of this force behind him, until captured despatches revealed the danger. He barely managed to recall Sacken through Lesmont to join himself with Olsufief and Pahlen. The Emperor’s unseasoned conscripts managed to drive the Prussians out of Brienne, losing 3,000 against 4,000 Prussians on January 29th.

The battle of Brienne, from 2:00 p.m. until after midnight, was a tactical draw as both sides fed their armies piecemeal into the battle. Yet is was a strategic defeat for the French as Napoleon failed to significantly disrupt the Coalition army. In one of many close-calls for Blücher, he and his chief of staff Gneisenau were nearly captured at the Château of Brienne, leaving by one side of the courtyard as the French entered the other. Blücher retired southeast towards Schwarzenberg at Bar sur Abe, while Napoleon remained at Brienne.

A French Defeat—A French Retreat

At Chaumont, the leaders of the Coalition held the first of many councils of war over the course of this campaign. They agreed to concentrate their armies, make no major move directly against Napoleon, but continually threaten his flanks and rear.

On January 30th, Napoleon drove Blücher from La Rothière, while Mortier moved to Arcis-sur-Aube. Macdonald moved to Châlons while Sebastiani remained at St. Menehould. Heavy snow impeded reconnaissance. Throughout the 31st, there was little activity as both sides sought to concentrate their spread-out armies.

On February 1st Blücher, commanding 85,000 men and 200 guns, advanced north and westward on Napoleon who had taken a blocking position south of Brienne with 45,000 and 128 guns. Napoleon had ordered the army to fall back northwest on Lesmont (along D396) prior to the battle, but the movement had not gotten underway before the battle commenced. Blücher attacked La Rothiere with his own troops reinforced by Barclay.

Napoleon realigned his front to meet Blücher, establishing a seven-mile front of 34,000, and holding 11,000 in reserve. The Battle of La Rothiere took place in the falling snow, and reminded those on both sides in many ways of the Battle of Eylau. The seesaw battle continued from noon to 9:00 p.m. that evening, with La Rothiere changing hands several times. When the town fell, Napoleon sent Rottembourg’s division to retake it in a counter-attack that covered his withdrawal. Both sides lost 6,000 men, but the French had to abandon 50 guns, nearly half their total. Napoleon retreated on Brienne, spending the night of February 1st/2nd in the same Château that Blücher had so hastily abandoned on January 29th. If Blücher had commanded all available Coalition forces, instead of his limited authority, the outcome could have been decisive.

On the morning of February 2nd Napoleon continued his retreat east and south to Troyes, intending to hold the Troyes—Arcis sur Aube line covering the Paris Road. The Coalition advanced on Brienne at 9:00 a.m. and once again held a council of war. They now became overconfident and decided to march on Paris, and agreed to separate the armies, due to supply difficulties. While Blücher would advance through Châlons and along the south bank of the Marne along N3 toward Meaux, Schwarzenberg's Army of Bohemia (accompanied by the Russian and Prussian monarchs) would take Troyes and follow the Seine via Sens and Fontainebleau (N19, N60, N6 &N7). Between the two armies, Seslawin’s Cossacks and Wittgenstein would cover communications.

On February 3rd, Napoleon entered Troyes, having lost another 4,000 men to attrition after the first demoralizing defeat on French soil. Marmont, in Arcis, retreated westward before Wrede, burning the Aube river bridge, thereby isolating Napoleon, who retreated westward to Nogent. Grouchy defended the Troyes, Arcis road from Russian cavalry. Yorck was held up by the garrison of Vitry, and Schwarzenberg became involved in a massive traffic jam at Vendeuvre. He then proceeded to recall Wittgenstein south of the Aube River and concentrated his army toward his left. Seslawin, too, was withdrawn from his screening rôle between the two armies, without anyone informing Blücher, whose forces became strung-on in their rush toward Paris.

Between February 5th and 7th, Napoleon concentrated at Nogent-sur-Seine, for a push northward against Blücher. Schwarzenberg settled into Troyes on February 7th, remaining there through February 10th.

The Initial Advance on Blücher

Blücher advanced to Châlons on the Châlons, Arcis Road (N77) and by February 5th began pushing Macdonald's corps westward, in front of him. For this, his initial march on Paris, the main body of the Army of Silesia used the "Great ParisRoad" via Chateau Thierry (N3). The remainder followed usingthe "Little Paris Road" through Champaubert and Montmirail (D33/D407) hoping to crush Macdonald before moving on toParis. Macdonald retreated on Meaux burning the Marne bridges behind him. By February 8th, in his rush forward, Blücher's army became strung out along the two parallel routes for a distance of nearly 44 miles between Châlons and Montmirail.

Eyeing an opportunity to defeatBlücher in detail, Napoleon left two corps plus detachments (approximately 39,000 men) to cover Schwarzenberg's movements. They were two veteran divisions from Spain at Provins, under Oudinot, while small forces under Pajol and Allix held bridgeheads at Pont-sur-Yonne and Sens. Schwarzenberg, at Troyes, anticipated a battle at Nogent, and requested reinforcements in the form of Kleist’s corps from Blücher.

The Emperor marched on Blücher with 20,000 infantry and the bulk of the cavalry (approximately 10,000) and 120 guns. He moved north on the Nogent sur Seine, Sezanne Road (D951/D51) arriving at Sezanne on February 9th, less than 10 miles from Blücher's route of march.

Macdonald was falling back toward Chateau-Thierry. Yorck reported French cavalry advancing from Sezanne toward Champaubert on February 9th. Blücher went in person to join Kleist and Kaptsevitch at Bergeres, leaving Olsufief’s tiny corps to hold Champaubert. Early on the 10th, Napoleon struck this corps, which might have escaped but for Blücher’s continued overconfidence. With no idea that Napoleon was so near, Olsufief's corps, only 4,000 infantry and 24 guns, put up a determined defence and was destroyed by 3:00 p.m. Olsufief himself became a prisoner.

Napoleon was now in the middle of Blücher's army. His idea was to use Macdonald to pin theRussian and Prussian units against the Marne, west of him,while he destroyed them individually in his approach. On the morning of February 10th he ordered Macdonald to advance to Montmirail where he was also advancing. This would trap the Coalition between Macdonald and him in a vice, and protect the approaches to Paris. Without bridging equipment Macdonald did not move. The lack of a bridge train was a continuing problem for the French throughout this campaign).

An isolated Sacken held his ground west of Montmirail on February 11th, with 18,000 men and 90 guns. Napoleon's attack began at 11:00 am, but Sacken held his ground. As French units coming on the field ground down the Coalition defence, Yorck, moving southward from Chateau Thierry, increasing the Coalition strength to around 30,000 men (againstNapoleon's 19,000 on the field), beat back repeated. French attacks and kept the Montmirail Chateau Thierry Road (D1) open for the Coalition retreat northward. The Coalition lost about 3,000 men and 13 guns. The French loss was approximately 2,000 men. Had Macdonald been able to mount an attack on the Coalition rear atChateau Thierry, a destruction of these two Coalition corps may have resulted; instead of their wounding and retreat.

The French pursuit roughly handled Sacken and Yorck resulting in an additional 2,800 Coalition casualties and the capture of 9 more guns. The Coalition units retreated on Reims. Napoleon rested at Chateau Thierry on the evening of February 12th. He once more commanded the roads covering Paris, and contemplated turning south on Schwarzenberg. But,as usual, he misjudged his old opponent. Not fully realizing the extent of the damage done to his commands of Olsufief, Sacken and Yorck, he moved west, hoping to redeem his fortunes by falling on Marmont's corps (2,500 infantry and 1,800 cavalry) covering him at Etoges on the Old Paris Road.

Marmont retreated on Napoleon's main body only two hours ahead of Blücher's advance guard (Zeithen's corps of 5,700 men). Picking up an additional 5,000-man detachment he turned at Vauchamps (east of Montmirail) in the morning of February 14th and awaited Napoleon's promised approach with the main body. With three hours separating Zeithen from Blücher's main body, he began his isolated attack around 10.00 am. Napoleon's unsuspected advance routed Zeithen onto Blücher.

Blücher now realized the isolation of his position and that he was fighting the main French force, not a rear guard. With Grouchy leading the French cavalry around the right of his army, Blücher began a fighting withdraw eastward on the Old Paris Road, through Etoges. For the second time in a month Blücher almost fell into French hands while trying to rally Kleist's during the retreat. The retreat ended atChâlons, with a loss of 6,000 men and 16 guns. Since the 10th, Blücher's army of 56,000 had lost 16,000 men and 47 guns to Napoleon's loss of 4,000. Blücher wasn't destroyed, only defeated. He would be back up to strength by February 18th. Napoleon would not.

Napoleon Again Moves South

While Napoleon was occupied with Blücher to the north, Schwarzenberg began his own move west on Paris on February 10th. Victor and Oudinot retreated west under pressure, along the Troyes, Nogent, Paris Road (N19), finally gathering in Macdonald's corps and attempting to hold the Yeres River line near Guigues (only about 25 miles southeast of Paris).

The news of these retreats put Paris in a panic. Napoleon had to act. He assigned Mortier's corps to Soissons to protect the Laon, Paris Road (N2) from any advance that Bulow and the Coalition Army of the North could mount. That army had been moving south through Belgium with little to stop it. Marmont was again tasked to cover Blücher at Châlons.

Napoleon began moving south on February 16th against an enemy who's resolve was quickly dissipating as bad news came from the north and the south.Schwarzenberg had become completely unnerved by Blücher's loss and precipitous retreat in the north. News had come of Augereau's stirring in the south at Lyons. Should Augereau mount an energetic campaign through Dijon he could threaten Schwarzenberg's communications through Langres and into Switzerland. In doing so it might compel him to fall back past the Rhine.

Napoleon moved west and south to the Yeres River, picking up Oudinot, Macdonald, and Victor. The bridges east of Montereau had been burned earlier in the campaign, and, lacking a bridge train, the French advanced to Montereau to cross the Seine (N36 to N105). The French crossing was held up by a small Coalition force of fewer than 10,000 infantry, 1,000 cavalry and only 26 guns until after 3:00 p.m. on February 18th when Napoleon appeared and organized the attack.

The Coalition now retreated east on their line of communications to Troyes. Napoleon's success at Montereau and continued reports of Augerreau's movement northeast caused Schwarzenberg to send an urgent message to Blücher to move south. He detailed a corps to cover his own communications through Châlons. On February 22nd Blücher with 50,000 men moved south along the Châlons Arcis Road (N77) arriving on the Aube west of Arcis. Napoleon, advancing along the Paris Nogent Troyes Road (N19) came into contact with parts of both armies, and prepared for a major battle. He wanted to keep the Army of Silesia north of the Seine River, while he tried conclusions with the Bohemian Army. As Napoleon approached Troyes, Schwarzenberg, his nerve now gone, and unaware of Blücher's location, continued to retreat east through Troyes resting most of the army between Bar sur Aube and Chaumont by February 24th.

Blücher now realized that an opportunity was open to Marmont at Sezanne and Mortierat Chateau Thierrry. His communications were relatively free of interference, and Napoleon was south and east of him. He could again move north, collect his outlying units (giving him a force of approximately 100,000), and march on Paris with little in the way of interference. Schwarzenberg would be safe where he was. Schwarzenberg's eastern retreat continued on February 26th, putting him between Bar sur Aube and Langres. Napoleon continued to follow through Troyes.

The Second Pursuit of Blücher

At first Napoleon did not believe that the Army of Silesia could take such a pounding and be capable of independent action. He would feel the same way after Ligny in 1815. Increasingly he underestimated both Blücher's abilities and his implacable thirst to avenge all that Prussia had suffered under Napoleon. Napoleon felt that Blücher's movements signaled a retreat back to Châlons.

With the Army of Bohemia safely retreating on east, Napoleon saw an opportunity to fall on Blücher again, and destroy his forces, if possible. His own line of communications (since the second week in February) ran through Nangis to Paris. Napoleon still held the central position between the two Coalition armies. Marmont was observing Blücher. Macdonald and Oudinot, with three corps and three cavalry corps was following Schwarzenberg, and the main army, with Napoleon, at Troyes. On February 26th, Napoleon decided to move north. But Blücher was already on the move. By the evening of February 26th he had pushed Marmont out of La Ferte Gaucher, Marmont and Mortier retreating westward to La Ferte sous Jouarre on the Marne. Moving west, Blücher gained a march on Napoleon. It wasn't until the morning of February 27th with Marmont's report in hand, that Napoleon was convinced Blücher really was moving on Paris. He still thought thatBlücher was east of his actual location.

Ney began probing north of Arcis. Napoleon wanted to pin Blücher against Marmont and Mortier, to cut off his retreat, and defeat him. Napoleon was on the move by the afternoon of February 27th to join Ney. He predicted that he would beat Blücher in three days, then turn and push Schwarzenberg out of France. He could not have been more wrong. Macdonald and Oudinot with 42,000 men would cover Schwarzenberg. Marmout and Mortier, with 10,000 men, would hold Blücher. Napoleon and Ney, with the remainder of the army (approximately 35,000men), would fall on the rear of the Army of Silesia. That was the plan. But it was already falling apart. Retiring west of the Marne, Marmont and Mortier continued to retreat to Meaux, and recaptured the town from Sacken's advanced guard. At least this blocked the mainroad to Paris to a potential Coalition advance.

Blücher continued north and west, only six miles east of Meaux by February 28th. He was still unaware of Napoleon's approach. Napoleon had moved north and east with his forces between La Ferte Gaucher and Sezanne on N4/N34. Schwarzenberg had sent instructions to Bernadotte with the Army of the North in Belgium to release Winzingerode and Bulow to Blücher's command as they moved south into France. Blücher ordered Winzingerode toReims to protect his communications, and Bulow to take Soissons from the French, in an effort to flank Meaux. As usual his army was spreading out on the march inviting destruction piecemeal, if caught.

On February 28th Marmont and Mortier moved north and gave Kleist and Kapzewitch a bloody nose, pushing them toward the main body. By March 1st, Blücher, unaware of Napoleon's location, began to worry over his own communications and the spread-out condition of his army. He moved further north masking Marmont and Mortier at Lizy. In this race, Napoleon had a distinct disadvantage with no bridge train. He was across the Marne at La Ferte sous Jouarre on March 1st. Blücher's advance was running out of steam, but he was more than willing to fight on his terms. Napoleon had never given up his primary plan to move east on Châlons, attack Blücher's line of communication, gather up the French garrisons in the east, move south on Schwarzenberg's line of communications, and force the entire Coalition army out of France. He felt this would split the Coalition camp and allow a separate peace with Austria. It was firmly in his mind now. He still believed in his Star. He failed to see that while his army was slowly weakening with each victory, the Coalition armies were growingstronger, even after their defeats. It was the Coalition leaders' awe of his military genius and Schwarzenberg's own timidity, mixed with Francis I's desire not to see France completely removed from the power balance of Europe, that would save Napoleon more than once in the deciding month of the campaign. The Emperor's plans were now little more than pipedreams.

Continuing north, Napoleon still believed that he was chasing only the rear guard of Blücher's retreating army. He misjudged Blücher's ability to fight, and his true strength. By March 2nd Blücher realized that he had to give up his drive on Paris and try conclusions with Napoleon. He held the line north of the Ourcq River, and had requested Bulow and Winzingerode take Soissons, controlling the Laon, Paris Road (N2). By March 3rd Napoleon was approaching the southern bank of the Ourcq River. His army had also begun to spread out on the march and the lack of a bridge train cost more time. Some units were still crossing the Marne River at Chateau Tierry. He had hoped to pin Blücher against Soissons, garrisoned by the veteran Legion of the Vistula under General Moreau. Marmont and Mortier, with less than 20,000 men, were now trailing and to the west of Blücher keeping themselves between Paris and Blücher.

On March 2nd Wingingerode attacked Soissons and was repulsed. Yet General Moreau allowed himself to be "cajoled, threatened and flattered to surrender the place without another fight... with his six guns and the honors of war." He didn't even destroy the old stone bridge. On hearing the news Napoleon issued orders to arrest, try, and publicly shoot the offending General. This was not to be. Napoleon fell before the trial could begin. On March 3rd, using the stone bridge and his own pontoon trains, Blücher crossed the Aisne at Soissons and continued north. He had escaped. On hearing that Soissons had fallen, Marmont and Mortier moved their cavalry north but could do little to interfere with Blücher's crossing.

Blücher, who had been out of communication with Châlons due to bad roads and blocked main roads, changed his line of communications north, through Laon. As hoped, the move north had allowed Blücher to gather in the various detachments and assemble an army of about110,000 men by March 5th. Napoleon, including Marmont and Mortier possessed only approximately 48,000 men. Yet such was the force of Napoleon's presence that Blücher continued to retreat on Laon. Napoleon moved east to block the Reims, Laon Road (N44), and took Reims on March 5th. Marmont and Mortier attempted to retake Soissons. Failing that, they moved east to Napoleon. Napoleon began concentrating his army between Fismes and Berry au Bac southeast of Craonne. Blücher likewise began concentrating his army north of the Aisne River, north of Soissons. Both had decided to make a fight of it, Blücher to protect his line of communications and for a march on Paris should the day be his; Napoleon feeling that he had finally isolated Blücher, and could destroy him. Napoleon had decided to try conclusions at Laon. Since he knew that Blücher was on a line between Soissons and Laon, Napoleon decided to advance along the Chemin des Dames to test Blücher's positions on the plateau, prior to his northward advance.

The sixteen-mile Chemin des Dames is a road built by a local nobleman in 1770 to connect his estates with Craonne and the major crossroads at Soissons and Reims. It is located on a continuous ridge from the Laon to Soissons Road (N2) to Craonne, descending to Chevreux. It rises again as itapproaches the Reims, Laon Road (N44). It has an average elevation of 400' above the Aisne River valley and varies in width from about 300' at its narrowest to about two miles. The marshy valleys and steep slopes on either side make troop movements difficult. It later became famous during the Battles of the Marne in World War I.

The Battle of Craonne

Blücher had stationed Sacken and Woronzoff's infantry on theplateau just west of the Heurtebise Farm (the farmhouse and out buildings are still there) about 2.5 miles west of Craonne. His plan was to pin the French army frontally with Woronzow's and Winzingerode's infantry drawn up in line on the plateau. Sacken would be in reserve behind the Russians. Thus pinned, Blücher would flank march Winzingerode's and Yorck's cavalry (12,000 men) via Festieux and attack theFrench right wing. They would be followed by the infantry of Kleist, Yorck and part of Langeron's command.

Napoleon had decided on a frontal attack up the Chemin des Dames on what he believed to be no more that a 20,000 man rearguard. Once pinned, both flanks would be turned by cavalry; the left from Ailles, from above Vassogne. Nothing went as planned for either side. The Battle began at 9:00 am on March 7th with a cannonade. Ney, mistaking the opening fire as the signal for the flank attack, did so prematurely, before the main forces had made contact and part of the cavalry was up on the opposite flank. By 11:00 the flank attack faltered. Ney personally led a second attempt on the Russian left, this time supported by artillery. Nansouty attacked the Russian right. The Russians begrudgingly gave ground. Victor's assault on the center finally got underway putting increased pressure on the entire Russian front.

A Russian counterattack regained lost ground, throwing Ney off the Plateau, and required the Guard cavalry to stabilize the situation. The Russian right flank began to give under combined pressure of Victor's infantry and Nansouty's cavalry. Ney's forces once again climbed the plateau. By 2 00 pm Blücher's flanking force had yet to appear on Napoleon's right. Napoleon directed 88 guns from the Guard artillery, under Drouot, to destroy the Russian center. Napoleon now observed Kleist's flank movement in the distance to his right. He ordered the Guard to attack along the Chemin des Dames, and complete the victory. The Russians on the plateau began their withdrawal, not due to the French, but on orders from Blücher, very reluctantly after holding the plateau with such tenacity. The orderly retreat moved west on the Chemin des Dames and north to Laon. Blücher, on investigating where his flanking troops had gone, found them too far from the field to be useful in the battle. The delay was caused by intermixing of units, traffic jams, wrong roads, and slow movement. He did not want his men butchered without a reason and called off theattack. Sacken's 9,000 men were never engaged.

The French pursuit ended at about 8:00 pm, their forces spread out along the Chemin des Dames between the Soissons Laon Road (N2) and the Reims Laon Road (N44). The French obtained not a single trophy for their efforts. Both sides lost about 5,000 men of the 22,000+ on each side that were actually engaged. The restrictive nature of the terrain was in the French favor, as the Coalition actually had a 2:1 advantage. Due to the retreat and the limited use of Coalition manpower, Napoleon still thought that he was facing Blücher's rearguard. He hoped to finish it off. Blücher recalled the 10,000 men in Soissons to Laon, where he planned to make his fight. Napoleon advanced to Laon on the Paris Laon Road (N2) with the main body, with Marmont converging on Laon via the Reims Laon Road (N44) on March 8th.

Battle of Laon

Laon's importance lies in its location astride the junction of the Paris, Bruxelles Road (N2) and the Vitry, Châlons, Reims, Laon Road (N44). F.Loraine Petre, in "Naploeon AtBay" aptly describes its importance in the 1814 campaign as follows:

North of Laon and east of Reims, Loan Road (N44) the country is practically level. Laon itself stands on an isolated hill, rising some 350 feetabove the plain. Viewed from the plain on the north, it reminds those who have seen Gwalior of that Indian rock fortress. The town occupies the summit, and even now there remains much of the old walls which once made it a very strong fortress. The plain south of Laon between theReims and Soissons roads, is extremely difficult for transverse communication, owing to the marshy fields in which, though the ground looks solid enough at a distance, a horse will sink to its hocks. The villages in the neighborhood are generally very defensible. Some of them, Bruyeres for instance, are old fortified villages, with some of the walls still standing.

In the early morning hours of March 9th Ney advanced on the towns before Laon on the Soissons/Laon Road (N2), in the new fallen snow. He was hoping to surprise Laon's defenders. It was the French that were surprised and fell back to Chivy, two miles south of Laon. He again advanced, this time with Mortier in support. Their combined forces pushed their way into the suburbs of Semilly. After a stiff fight, the French again retreated around noon.

Napoleon faced an aggressive enemy that not only wanted to fight but out numbered him 2.5:1 and ensconced in a strong, defensive position. Bulow with 17,000 men held the suburbs of Semilly and Ardon. On the plain west of Laon, Winzingerode was posted with 25,000 men. East of Laon at Athies, Yorck and Kleist were posted with 25,000 men. Blücher held Langeron and Sacken in reserve north of the city with an additional 36,000 men. This totaled over 100,000 men, strongly posted. And yet Napoleon proposed to attack it with two unsupported forces that combined didn't equal 40,000 men. Approximately 30,000 were under the direction of Ney. Marmont had only 10,000 men and 55 guns. Considering the terrain, Blücher must have had a splendid view of the proceedings. Blücher attempted to turn Napoleon's left and failed. During the next few hours the southern suburbs again traded hands as the French attacked, but found it increasingly difficult to retain their positions. Blücher now marched his reserve east as he expected the main attack to come from the Reims Road (N44). He still thought that he was being attacked by only the French advanced guard. Napoleon threw all his available infantry into Ney's attack, with the last advance about 6:00 pm.

The results were predictable. Ney was once again driven out of Semilly. Napoleon retreated on Chavignon on the Paris Road. Marmont's attack up the Reims Road (N44) was a complete disaster, and one that Napoleon's dwindling resources could ill afford. Marmont advanced, reaching Festieux at 10 00 am. By noon he had fought his way to Athies, taking the town by 5:00 pm. By 7:00 pm he was still holding the town. Here he camped for the night, unaware that Napoleon had retreated, that he was now unsupported, and still in contact with Blücher's advanced cavalry. At 7:30 p.m. Yorck launched a combined arms attack that routed Marmont's entire camp. By accident a small group (about 100 men) of French Old Guard had bedded-down for the night in Festieux before joining Napoleon the next morning. They managed to halt the pursuit with the assistance of Fabvier's cavalry, but not before Marmont had lost 45 guns, all his transport, and 3,500 men (more than one out of three). And yet, on the whole, Napoleon's army was still relatively intact. Blücher had his chance to destroy this small army, and failed. For his total misreading of Blücher, and the advance of two unsupported columns, Napoleon was remarkably lucky. In retrospect it was a risk taken for little possible gain.

Laon spelled the beginning of the end for Napoleon. He had not removed Blücher from the theater of operations; and lost men and materials that he increasingly could not replace. As the morning of March 10th dawned, Blücher's health finally broke. This seventy year old man had been sick for several days, and now could hardly give orders. Without Blücher's tough, and fearless determination a timidity overcame the Army of Silesia, that was a combination of his Chief of Staff's awe of Napoleon, and lack of nerve. The army would not move on his weak foe. Napoleon, against all reasonable hope, had held his ground. Blücher's early morning orders for the army to advance were canceled by Gneisenau at 8:00 am. Napoleon renewed his attacks that day and got nowhere. By 4:00 pm. he had gained nothing,and recognized that further offensive action was useless. He decided to retreat on Soissons, arriving there unmolested with 30,000 men by March 11th. Gneisenau watched him go, and was unmoved by the protestations of his corps commanders, who wanted to follow up their victory.

Soissons

Soissons, a major crossing of the Aisne River on the main road between Laon and Paris, was vital to the protection of Paris from any advance south. It controlled the strategic movement of troops and supplies. It was atSoissons on March 12th that Napoleon learned of the defection of his brother in law, the King of Naples Joachim Murat, to the Coalition. On March 12th St. Priest (of Blücher's command) retook Reims. To snatch a quick victory Napoleon and his little army moved east on March 13th. By 4:00 pm Napoleon began his attack, and drove him out. St. Priest was killed along with 3,000 of his men. He lost 23 guns. Only 10,000 men of Napoleon’s force were actually engaged against 15,000 Coalition troops.

Schwarzenberg’s Advance

The army of Silesia continued its inactivity around Laon as a result of Blücher's illness and Gneisenau's timidity. This was misunderstood by Napoleon now at Reims. Feeling that he had cowed his northern opponent, he returned to his previous desire to advance east, collect the garrisons in Metz, and along the Meuse and Moselle,and turn on Schwarzenberg's line of communications. He still hoped that this would remove Schwarzenberg from France and break up the coalition. He was unwilling to realize that at this point his army was too weak for such a maneuver. He had less than 50,000 men athis disposal. Schwarzenberg, in accordance with the basic Coalition plan, essentially intact since late 1813, moved on Macdonald and Oudinot while Napoleon engaged Blücher in the north.

On February 27th the Army of Bohemia had advanced on Bar sur Aube from Chaumont, pushing Oudinot westward through Troyes on the Paris Road (N19). On March 12th, he uncovered Macdonald's communications, forcing him westward in the bargain. The Marshal's 42,000 man covering force had been reduced to 30,000. At Troyes Schwarzenberg stopped, fearful of just such a maneuver on his communications that Napoleon wished to accomplish. With news of Napoleon's retreat from Laon, his nerve returned, and he continued to move westward along the Paris Road (N19) east of Nogent. Macdonald had retreated west of the Seine River to Provins on N19. On March 17th Schwarzenberg received news that Napoleon was in Reims and Châlons to the northeast. As quickly his nerve vanished. He pulled back, concentrating on Troyes and Arcis. He was prepared to retreat to Bar sur Aube if necessary.

Napoleon moved south from Reims. He had hoped to put himself in the midst of Schwarzenberg's command as it was retreating from Nogent, encouraging it eastward, away from Paris. He ordered his entire army (23,000 men), on to Accis. Mortier and Marmont with 21,000 men were assigned to cover Blücher. Napoleon's advance fixed Schwarzenberg’s army in place at Troyes with his forward units north around Arcis. Once he realized that Napoleon was not on his line of communications Schwarzenberg, uncharacteristically, decided to stand his ground. Napoleon advanced on March 20th at about 11:00 a.m. and pushed Schwarzenberg's advanced guard out of Arcis. Again, Napoleon believed that he only faced a part of the retreating Coalition army. By that afternoon the main Coalition army (74,000 men) began moving north of Troyes unobserved by the French. The Coalition attack commenced at 2:00 p.m. A desperate battle was fought till nightfall, mostly for control of the Arcis bridge over the Aube. Surprisingly,the French held. As darkness fell, the Coalition held a line south of Arcis between Chaudry and Premierfait. Napoleon held Arics and the Bar, Arcis, Mery Road (D960/D441).

On the morning of March 21st, with Macdonald and Oudinot finally up, Napoleon began an advance on the Coalition position. Once on the plain south of the Aube he saw the entire Coalition army laid out before him, and precipitously retreated north back over the Aube before Schwarzenberg's ordered attack got under way after 3:00 pm. With Macdonald holding the northern portion of Arcis as a rear guard, Napoleon retreated north on Vitry, bypassing a strong Russian garrison (5,000 men) and moved east to St. Dizier, where he planned to operate on Schwarzenberg's lines of communications through Chaumont to Langres. Schwarzenberg initially contemplated a retreat on his line of communications.

Tsar Alexander, correctly reading the situation, put intense pressure on him to move on to Paris. The period between March 22nd and March 25th was a time of indecision and doubt for the Coalition commander. A number of French dispatches had been captured showing Paris in a state of distress. Joseph had done nothing to improve its defenses and Talleyrand and Fouché were attempting to insure their good intentions to both the French King and theEmperor. Schwarzenberg changed his line of communication to the north in conformity with Blücher's own. The initial plan was to combine forces at Châlons, and march on Napoleon with over 200,000 men. Finally, a letter written by Napoleon to Maria Louisa fell into their hands laying out his strategy to gather the fortress garrisons and attack the Coalition communications. Both Coalition armies were now closer to Paris than Napoleon. At the Tsar's insistence he canceled the march on Napoleon. Blücher was ordered to march west, take Soissons, and move on Paris. Schwarzenberg was to march to Meaux, and then unite with Blücher for a final march on Paris. Winzingerode covered Napoleon's movements when the Coalition move westward started on March 25th. On March 23rd Napoleon started for Vassy, heading for Bar sur Aube. On the evening of March 26th, Napoleon bested Winzingerode when the latter advanced on Vitry with 8,000 men and 40 guns. By the evening of March 27th Napoleon realized that the Coalition were moving on Paris. On March 28th he began to march westward via Bar sur Aube,Troyes and Fontainbleau (N19/N60/N6/N7). On March 29th the Coalition armies, numbering 107,000 men,advanced on Paris from the north.

The Paris defenses consisted of 42,000 men of all kinds and 154 guns under Marmont, Mortier and Moncy. The actual physical defenses were minimal. The Coalition attacked on March 3Oth, and had driven in the northern defenses by 4:00 pm. At Troyes, Napoleon left the army and hurried on to Paris. On March 3Oth, at the post inn La Cour de France in Juvisy, 12 miles from Paris, he first heard the news that the Coalition had occupied Paris. By April 3rd, Napoleon, at Fontainbleau and with a provisional government in place, had massed some 60,000 troops for a drive on Paris. By then the Coalition occupation force had grown to 145,00 men , but Napoleon was still game for the fight. During a council of war that afternoon, Ney announced, "TheArmy will not march on Paris." Napoleon is supposed to have retorted, "The Army will obey me." And Ney responded, "Thearmy will obey its generals." The Marshals had rebelled. They were tired. The people were tired of war. On April 5th, Marmont's corps, the largest in the army (11,000 men) marched into the Austrian lines and surrendered. Napoleon abdicated in favor of his son, the King of Rome on April 6th. It was not accepted. On April 12th Napoleon signed an agreement relinquishing all claims on France. That same night he attempted suicide. In this he failed. Though ashen and ill when found the next morning, he recovered. On April 16th the major powers ratified the Treaty of Fontainbleau, giving Napoleon full sovereignty over the island of Elba, 2 million francs a year (to be paid by the French government), and he was allowed to take with him 600 soldiers as his guard. On April 2, 1814, he sailed into exile on the HMS Inconstant. In less than a year he would be back.

                                                                                    —Steven R. McHenry

Mr. McHenry playtested the 1983 edition. He wrote this narrative in 1991 for the Napoleonic Tours Guidebook, here edited and augmented.

 

 
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