Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns

The Campaign of 1814: Chapter 8, Part I

By: Maurice Weil

Translated by: Greg Gorsuch


(after the Imperial and Royal War Archives at Vienna)






3 TO 16 February 1814.


3 February 1814.  --Movements of Blücher.  --The separation of the two main masses of the Allies was not totally  a displeasure to the old field marshal as in giving him an almost absolute freedom of action, it allowed him to govern, so to speak, entirely at his discretion his march on Paris and gave him the ability to imprint momentum and force on operations that were incompatible with the far too methodical caution of Prince Schwarzenberg and the political motives of his entourage.  While the slowness of the Great Army made it lose so completely contact with the Emperor so that the evening of the 2nd the general headquarters did not know the direction taken by the French corps that fought at La Rothière, while rearguard actions like those of Rosnay and Villiers-le-Brûlé, together with the destruction of the bridge Lesmont, gave Napoleon the respite he needed, not only to restore order in his army, but to retreat almost unhindered to Troyes; Blücher had immediately started his movement towards the Marne.  From that moment he resolved to make his junction with first Yorck, then with the corps of Kleist and Kapsewitch still staggered up the Meuse towards the Saar, to then go by the most direct route to the goal towards which his eyes had not stopped turning since November 1813.  Leaving from Braux-le-Comte, where he had spent the night of 2 to 3 February, the Field Marshal arrived in the evening with his main body at Saint-Ouen; his advanced guard going to Humbauville and his outposts s stretched up to Coole.

His march was performed without difficulty, since the Emperor had resolved to await in Troyes the development of events that only he could foresee and desire, and as Marmont, after the brilliant fight of Rosnay, was withdrawn to Arcis-sur-Aube.

Measures to stop Macdonald by Yorck.  --Cavalry combat at La Chaussée.  --Thanks to the information provided by interrogation of prisoners and deserters, the affair of Saint-Amand was enough to momentarily distract the attention from Vitry of Yorck.  To be more fully aware of the situation on the side of La Chaussée, the Prussian general had sent there the day of 2 February, an officer belonging to the staff of one of his brigades, Major von Schutz.  This officer, after conducting in the afternoon a thorough reconnaissance, proposed to the General, who accepted his idea, to prevent the French from receiving reinforcements from Châlons by attacking at daybreak with the cavalry of Generals von Katzler and von Jürgass and a detachment of Colonel von Henckel, while the infantry of the Ist Corps, with the exception of the brigade of von Pirch II, concentrated in front of Vitry-le-Brûlé.

At the same time that the French cavalry began to debouch from La Chaussée and deploy on the hill in front of the village, it found itself suddenly in the presence of eight squadrons of dragoons of General von Jürgass.  This general, after leaving Saint-Amand at 5 o'clock in the morning, had followed a side road joining the main road a short distance from La Chaussée, while the Colonel Henckel, with his six squadrons of landwehr and a battalion of fusiliers, marched from Aulnay-l'Aître on La Chaussée along the right bank of the Fion.  The cavalry of Jürgass preceded on the main road the squadrons of General von Katzler who left at the same time the farm of Bayarne in two echelons, the first of seven squadrons, the second of six.  The vanguard of infantry, under the command of Colonel von Warburg, followed this cavalry to provide it support as necessary.[1]

Once the head of the advanced guard had debouched at the main road, Jürgass stopped his column to give time to the cavalry of General von Katzler to reach its level.  At this point he still could have determined, although it had not yet been a full day, an approximate account of strength, movements and intentions of the French.  The calls of their trumpets and the noise caused by the operation of their artillery proved moreover, to the Prussian general of an impending attack, also required by the orders of Macdonald.  General von Jürgass, feeling that the minutes were precious, had immediately formed his cavalry in two lines, preceded by a vanguard.  In the first line, right near the main road, was the advanced guard, consisting of two squadrons.  To the left of this vanguard and connecting with the right squadrons of General von Katzler the dragoon regiment of West Prussia, followed by Lithuanian dragoons, which formed the second line while the cavalry of General von Katzler was deployed to their left, also in two lines. Four squadrons of Brandenburg hussars formed the first line, immediately supported by two squadrons of uhlans, and covered to the left by a squadron of Brandenburg hussars and a squadron of national cavalry.  The Mecklenburg hussars remained for the moment in reserve.  These preparations, although nimbly executed, could not escape the French, whose cavalry occupied the heights in front of La Chaussée, whose infantry, covered by a few squadrons deployed in front of Aulnay.  General von Jürgass took a stand on this side with a half- battery of horse artillery, to which he gave the order to stop the enemy fire by those who sought to outflank his right, while his squadrons moved quickly against the French cavalry also formed in two lines, coming against chasseur à cheval and cuirassiers, supported by a battery.[2]

Although the French cavalry had succeeded in throwing back the dragoons of West Prussia, which was cast against its left, although some squadrons of cuirassiers being to the French right had the advantage on both squadrons of hussars and national cavalry of Major von Zastrow, the charge of the Prussians returned.  It had succeeded in crushing the chasseurs, throwing back in disorder the cuirassiers, carrying them away in their retrograde movement, and seizing three pieces of the battery before it had time to begin firing.  Some squadrons of cuirassiers had, however, attempted a counter-offensive and sought to regain the pieces throwing himself against the front-line squadrons who had not yet had time to reform.  But they had to retreat before the Brandenburg hussars who, supported by the West Prussian dragoons, rallied in haste, and the chasseur squadron of the Lithuanian Dragoon Regiment, strongly pursued up to La Chaussée, where the French cuirassiers were collected at the exit of the village by the infantry division of Molitor.

Meanwhile, Colonel Henckel entered the line on the right of General von Jürgass; his cavalry having thrown back the Polish lancers to the heights behind La Chaussée.  His fusilier battalion, led to his left, also advanced against La Chaussée.  The French had, indeed, evacuated the village to take over a position behind their infantry deployed on the heights, cleverly pulled out at a  time when it was taken a part of the Prussian cavalry in crossing the town and reform at its exit.  General von Jürgass with some parts of squadrons had preferred to go around the village from the north to connect with and seek Henckel to outflank the French left.  However, his progress was slowed by the difficult terrain it had to cross.  For some time a cannonade on both sides ensued, until the appearance of the Prussian cavalry, which had been expanding northward, came to threaten the extreme left of the French, who then decided to continue their retreat.  General von Katzler pursued by the main road, while Jürgass pushed up to Pogny.  Arriving at this point and after chasing the French flank guards to a height where they were established, the general remarked that his opponent, forced to defile through Les Baraques, again deployed its cavalry before Pogny to cover their retreat, and thus gain the time it needed to make the crossing of the Moivre. "I took advantage of this circumstance", said General von Jürgass in his report, "to try a new charge; I attacked the enemy front with Lithuanian dragoons, supported by those in the second line of West Prussia, while the landwehr cavalry of Count Henckel took the flank.  I threw in disorder and pursued into the village; but the fire of French skirmishers, who lined the hedges and occupied homes, stopped the Prussian squadrons and allowed the French cavalry to cross the Moivre and cut the bridge behind it."

The night began to fall and a big battery established on the right bank of the Moivre had opened fire when General von Yorck arrived on the scene of the fight.  It was too late to try anything serious, with troops exhausted by fatigue, and for trying to force the passage at night of the Moivre especially as the head of the infantry column began only to arrive in La Chaussée.[3]  Yorck decided to stop there, however, he pushed the cavalry reserve and a detachment of Count Henckel towards Francheville and Dampierre, to threaten the French left and reconnoiter this side of the course and crossings of the Moivre.  His advanced guard remained on the banks of this small river, the same positions held at the end of the fight.  The landwehr squadron which had traced the course of the Ornain in the direction of Revigny-aux-Vaches, was ordered to return by Possesse to take position at the intersection of roads from Bar-le-Duc to Reims and Châlons and from Vitry to Sainte-Menehould, to cover the right wing.

The 8th Brigade occupied La Chaussée and Aulnay; the 7th, Saint-Amand; the reserve artillery, Vitry-le-Brûlé.

"The results of this cavalry battle, in which the enemy resisted fiercely, were very brilliant," Yorck wrote to Schwarzenberg. "7 cannons, 6 caissons, 1 standard[4] and several hundred men fell into our hands.  The losses of the enemy were considerable.  Mine totaled 150 men hors de combat."[5]

French retreat.  --Marshal Macdonald had, almost from the beginning of the action, acknowledged that the weakness of his cavalry and the indecision of its leaders left him unlikely to tip the balance to his side.  At noon, he had let the Duke of Valmy know of the loss of La Chaussée, informing him of his retrograde motion on Pogny.  It was therefore up to marshal to be concerned about the defense of Châlons and the retirement of his corps on this city.  Also, before traveling to Châlons to confer with the old Marshal Kellermann, he had thought it his duty to leave Sebastiani command of troops between La Chaussée and Pogny, charging him to retreat at nightfall.

Yorck wrote during the evening at 8 o'clock:  "The enemy occupies compared to me a good position.  But I believe it will retire this night and I will continue on Châlons.  If, on the contrary, it remains in its position, I will attack tomorrow.'"[6]  Sebastiani executed the orders of the Duke of Tarente and started in good order by retiring in stages on Châlons.  The 5th Corps came to occupy the city itself; the division of Brayer settled in Saint-Memmie; the 3rd Cavalry Corps marching up to the level of the Brayer Division, headed on Compertrix and Coolus, and the cavalry division of General Lorge left Francheville with orders to cross Châlons.  Molitor's division had to be staggered behind the Brayer Division and the 2nd Cavalry Corps, forming with it the rearguard, was kept on the same road, Chepy and Moncetz-Longevas, and on the left of the farm of Longeval, to monitor there the road from Châlons to Bar-Leduc.[7]

At 10 o'clock at night, the last French troops had left the shores of the Moivre, the Prussian advance guard taking their place immediately; but the Prussian troops were so exhausted[8] that they were satisfied with observing the direction taken by the French retirement and they stopped completely at midnight, so taking a few hours of rest which they had the greatest need.

Considerations on the battle of La Chaussée.  --The whole affair of La Chaussée deserves the closest examination of the methods used by the two cavalry, as it provides us with an example, rare even then, of a fight of cavalry against cavalry.  The Prussian infantry arrived too late in line to take part in the struggle, and the role of the French infantry was reduced to an attempt to defend La Chaussée, then later in the evening, with the occupation by its tirailleurs of Baraques and the bridge over the Moivre.  It is the vigor of the Prussian cavalry that takes the entire honor in impeding the movement of the Duke of Tarente on Vitry, the weakness and faults of the leaders of the French cavalry bear full responsibility for the evacuation of this town and the loss of Châlons.

"I think," said General von Jürgass rightly, at the end of his report, "that this day is an honor to the Prussian cavalry."  " Never," adds Count Henckel in his, "have I taken part in a cavalry battle dominated from the first moment to the last, and with as much order as gusto."  In fact, there may be few battles in which the cavalry has operated with more vigor, more energy and more intelligence than the Prussian cavalry in this battle of La Chaussée. When the two cavalry found themselves in the presence of each other, there was not a moment to lose for the Prussians.  Hesitation could have ruined everything by giving the French time to bring their batteries into position and crush the Prussian squadrons by their fire.  Jürgass and Katzler, while taking an accurate account of the situation, however, kept rushing everything; they understood that the order was a guarantee of success and moved  their squadrons forward, the first, as soon as the deployment of two lines was completely finished; the second, from his second line regiments which joined those at the front.  Thereby avoiding successive attacks, which could not bring any results, they were able therefore to support their first line by the second at the point where the need was felt and ensure the ultimate success in combining an attack against the left flank of the French with the charges they personally directed against their fronts and right.  As rightly pointed out General von Columb in his Beiträge zur Geschichte der preussischen Kavallerie the battle of La Chaussée demonstrated in a peremptory way the excellence and accuracy of these methods.   There was, indeed, as we have said. a time when a part of the second line of the French cavalry, resisting vigorously sought to save the battery.  The whole first line of Prussians, who had left little in their wake to doubt that they would use the same spirit and ardor in pursuit, could have easily been crushed and routed.  If the Prussians did not have reinforcements at hand, if the second line which were not immediately brought to the aid of the first, it is likely that the French having retaken their batteries, their infantry approaching at that time, would have had time to more firmly occupy the edge of the village of La Chaussée and their artillery could have played a decisive role in forcing the Prussian squadrons to forego the benefits they had already won.  The fight itself would have completely changed in character, since instead of pursuing the French on the Châlons road, it would have to consider first and foremost the taking of La Chaussée.  The strength, calm and good dispositions of generals von Jürgass and von Katzler had allowed the Prussian cavalry to successfully end the mission within which they had acquitted themselves so well in.  Finally, these two generals, not content with having foiled the plans of the French, having thwarted their attempts and winning a first advantage over them that had been only too decisive, hastened to wisely organize a pursuit.  While part of their squadrons crossed La Chaussée, the rest of their cavalry skirted the village, deployed under the eyes of the French infantry, outflanked its left, and forced its retreat, permanently ensuring success in crushing the French cavalry who, devoting itself to cover the retreat, tried on the left bank of the Moivre a final offensive return.

The Prussian cavalry[9] achieved this brilliant and needed success at La Chaussée observing and applying the old principles of the French cavalry, that seemingly were completely forgotten at this time; these principles that it had set in practice before other cavalries, which had earned them so many triumphs and had popularized the use.

It suffices, in fact, to see the correspondence of Marshal Macdonald to see that the French cavalry had persisted in the self-destructive way in which it had thought proper to engage, that it employed processes contrary to the spirit of the arm and perhaps in the hope of making up in this way for its lack of dressage for horses, for the insufficient military education of its men, it continued to have recourse to expedients, experimented with several times during the previous year, which had given every opportunity unfavorable results and had brought only checks.

"At the moment," wrote the Duke of Tarente with his usual frankness and loyalty to the Chief of Staff, "when the cavalry of the 2nd Corps debouched this morning[10] from La Chaussée, it was met by twenty squadrons formed in column who threw it back and took its artillery, which was also in a column.  Your Highness can imagine the chaos that ensued, especially on ground so favorable to cavalry.   Our few infantry and artillery saved everything.  They kept to the crossing of many slopes a little to the right of the river[11], where the enemy was stopped for now, where the troops are marching to join together in Châlons .... The enemy showed 4,000 horses, 2,000 infantry and 20 guns.[12]  Its cavalry was very bold, and I must say, ours paled in comparison.  We have many detachments, and it shows its inferiority, unfortunately .... It will hardly be possible to keep Châlons over twenty-four hours."

With a judge so impartial as Marshal Macdonald having appreciated the attitude of his cavalry during the affair of 2 February it provides us the best of all the arguments that we could use to justify our assertions.  We can, indeed, present in favor of the French cavalry some not so worthless arguments; it must be especially emphasized that little cohesion was present in regiments composed of men chosen at random from depots and dispersed according to needs, in the regiments which needed relief as soon as possible with replacements.  The esprit de corps was bound to diminish; secondly, as was the time to complete the training of riders; the horses were assembled and hastily requisitioned.  But the regiments had a solid core, moreover, there remained the old cadres and old soldiers in sufficient numbers to maintain the conscripts.  Without denying that the influence that the defective composition of these improvised regiments had on the minds of their leaders, it should be recognized that it was the especially bad steps taken by the generals which led or at least facilitated the defeat.  The leaders of the French cavalry committed indeed, several more unforgivable mistakes each as bad as the other.  They wanted to try once more a process that they had never succeeded with and, moreover, while completely contradicting the true spirit of the arm, was fatally destined to only lead to checks and failure.  They thought they could stop and break at the beginning of the affair, the momentum of the cavalry of Jürgass and Katzler, while waiting on firm footing and receiving them at fifteen paces by a salvo.[13]  This battle tactic would only prove fatal to the French cavalry.  Fire executed from horses can never be effective and will never stop a cavalry determined to tackle the enemy cavalry.  The Prussian squadrons held even less thought of this salvo as it did them, so to speak, no harm and as driven by the same impulse resulting from the movement, they entered the French squadrons frontline and crushed it even before the men who came to fire had time to take their swords in hand.  In addition, as the French generals had the unfortunate idea to deploy their cavalry on two parallel lines not far from each other, as they had no more reserves behind or support on their flanks, their frontline violently hit by the Prussian cavalry, came to break the ranks of the second and carried it back in its retreat.  Exelmans and the Duke of Padoue seem to have completely forgotten at La Chaussée that attack with bladed arms  is the essence of cavalry tactics, that movement is the first condition of success and a cavalry which remains stationary instead of moving to meet the charge which is already half beaten and waiting for an opportunity or an excuse to turn back before the shock.  The battle of La Chaussée has demonstrated once again that, as the author so aptly says in Exploits and Vicissitudes of the Cavalry, it is foolhardy to try to deduce an absolute certainty of victory from such as such dispositions, it is not less true "that to see from the dispositions for certain affairs, it would not have been necessary to be prophet to predict that the results would not be so good."[14]

As we saw in the previous chapter, Wittgenstein was to change once again, from the evening of 2 February, the direction of his march and sent columns that he had detached from Vitry, the orders to move the 3rd on Éclaron, to be able to follow the movement as the IVth Corps approached the main body of the Army of Bohemia.

Movement of the corps of Kleist on Saint-Mihiel and the corps of Kapsewitch on Nancy.  --As the corps of Kleist, continued its march on Saint-Mihiel, the advanced guard was camped the evening of the 3rd at Bouconville and Broussey-Raulecourt, the 10th Brigade at Thiaucourt-Regniéville and Beney-en-Woëvre, the 12th Brigade in Pont-à-Mousson and Montauville.  The headquarters of Yorck was established at Thiaucourt.

The corps of Kapsewitch, leaving from Mainz, was even further back and had just passed Nancy.

4 February 1814.  --March of Blücher on Sommesous and Fère-Champenoise.  --While the Emperor sent Marmont orders to move on Sézanne, Blücher had decided to move the advanced guard on Fère-Champenoise and go with his main body to Sommesous at the crossroads of the routes from Arcis to Châlons and from Paris to Vitry. He kept its further course to be based on news from Yorck and the movements of Macdonald.  Upon arrival at Sommesous, Blücher learned that a French artillery park of  75 guns had passed by this town.  Vasilchikov could not join him and had only managed to reach and capture, before Sommesous, a large convoy of food from Châlons to Arcis.[15] This news convinced Blücher to move on Fère-Champenoise, leaving the corps to Olsufiev at Sommesous and pushing Vasilchikov by Fère-Champenoise on Meaux.

During his march on Sommesous and Fère-Champenoise, the Russian general had been flanked on his left by Biron, who leaving from Humbauville and passing by Semoine and Pleurs, arrived at Saint-Rémy well into the evening, meeting nothing on the way.  From there, he told the Field Marshal that the Cossacks of Seslavin already occupied Sézanne.  Finally, in the evening, Olsufiev informed Blücher that the French, had surprised a regiment of Cossacks, dislodging them from Vatry and placed in the village infantry and some artillery.[16]

The Field Marshal informed the 4th at night of the direction through Troyes that the Emperor had taken his retirement, concluded that, for the moment at least, Napoleon did not think to recall the troops of Macdonald to him.

Macdonald decides to defend Châlons.  --Knowing that parties of cavalry, had been the day of the 3rd on the left bank of the Marne, occupying Blacy near Vitry, and the villages along the bank of the river Isson and held the course of the Coole, the Duke of Tarente had directed the Duke of Padoue to mount his cavalry at daybreak and scout with it the roads on the left bank of the Marne, and to have General Simmer with his infantry in position at Coolus by 5 o'clock in the morning.

An hour earlier, Molitor had to retreat on Châlons, occupy the gate of Vitry, guard it with a caisson piece and some hussars for watch, and send the rest of his artillery park onto the left bank of the Marne.

General Braver was ordered to make a similar movement under the same conditions and go to guard the gate of Saint-Jean.  The defense of the gate of Reims (Porte Saint-Jacques) was assigned to Sebastiani with the 5th Corps. General Exelmans would cover with his cavalry the retreat of Molitor.  Arriving within a league of Châlons, he had orders to only keep with him a portion of the light cavalry and send the rest back to Châlons to camp at Villers-aux-Corneilles (Villers-le-Château), Saint-Pierre-aux-Oies and Thibie. The marshal, who was under no illusions about his situation, recommended the light cavalry avoid serious engagement.  He hoped through these provisions, at Châlons to last at least twenty-four hours.  During the night from the 3rd to 4th, he transmitted to General Montmarie the orders to evacuate Vitry, destroy all equipment he could not take, to blow up the bridges of the Marne and Isson and march by Maisons-en-Champagne and Faux-sur-Coole on Vatry.[17]

Attack on Châlons by the Prussian Ist Corps.  --A little after 5 o'clock in the morning, General von Katzler resumed his movement and met between 8 and 9 o'clock in the morning, the first French vedettes at a short distance from Châlons.

Yorck, warned of the complete withdrawal of Marshal Macdonald, personally joined the advanced guard after giving his corps the order to push around on Châlons.  "Macdonald, who was commander in chief, had put the city in a state of defense.  Châlons is protected by high walls, crenellated ramparts and moats.  Pieces had been placed at the salients, the gates were barricaded that had been covered with small redoubts.  The village of Saint-Memmie, located south of Châlons, was covered around on the road to Vitry and was separated from the city by a wide moat."[18]

Around 10 o'clock in the morning, the advanced guard of the Prussian Ist Corps arrived at the suburbs, that General von Katzler prepared to attack.  He first summoned the town to surrender and open its gates.  This proposal was rejected, and Katzler launched at 11 o'clock, against the suburb of Saint-Memmie two battalions of fusiliers and a few companies of jäger, who succeeded in reaching the main pathway between the suburbs and the city.  Crushed by the fire from large guns of the French artillery, decimated by the fire of the infantry, the Prussians had to retreat somewhat, while still continuing to stay in the suburbs.

In order to avoid unnecessary losses, Yorck, arriving in the meantime on the field of battle, resolved to await the arrival of his main body to conduct an assault if necessary.  The reserve cavalry, who had followed the wrong direction, appeared around Châlons only at 3 o'clock and took position on the highway of Saint-Menehould, pushing right to the outskirts of Reims the 1st West Prussia Dragoons.  At 4 o'clock, when the brigades of Prince Wilhelm and General von Horn had entered the line, they sent again a negotiator, Major Count Brandenburg, with orders to warn the Marshal that if he refused to turn over the city a bombardment would begin immediately.  At 8 o'clock, a negative response was reported to the staff.  A battery of 12 and eight howitzers opened fire immediately.  The bombardment continued until 11 o'clock.  It managed to light several fires in the city, and Yorck was preparing to give his orders to attack the next day, when a deputation from the municipality of Châlons, accompanied by an officer, came to propose at midnight that the commander of the Ist Corps give him, the 5th, at 8 o'clock in the morning, the city that the French would agree to evacuate by 7 o'clock.  On the order of Yorck, Major von Brandenburg returned immediately to Châlons, meeting Macdonald, who yielding to the solicitations and the prayers of the mayor and inhabitants, finally consented to leave Châlons the 5th in the morning.[19]

A singular incident marked the evening.  While his artillery bombarded the city, Yorck and his staff, installed
on a farm not far from the suburb of Saint-Memmie, came out when the shooting significantly decreased on their side, as the orderlies returned, who had been sent to the suburb to bring back a few bottles of wine, returned empty-handed mine and dismayed to announce to the general that all the men in Saint-Memmie were dead.  Colonel Valentini, Chief of Staff of Yorck, immediately mounted on horseback, went to the suburb and witnessed the  spectacle hitherto without example.  Prussian soldiers lay, in fact, on the ground, but dead drunk amidst heaps of bottles of champagne they had found in the cellars and had dutifully emptied.  They were relieved at once by the brigade of General von Horn .[20]

While Major von Brandenburg discussed and obtained the capitulation, Yorck personally went to settle in Saint-Memmie, and the brigade of Prince Wilhelm occupied the suburbs of Reims, that the French had evacuated by virtue of the agreement; the rest of the troops bivouacked, with the exception of the 2nd Hussar Regiment (Lifeguard Hussars) that were sent to take position in Saint-Martin-sur-le-Pré, on the road to Reims.[21]

March of Kleist and Kapsewitch.  --Appearance of the Cossacks in the Department of the Aisne.  --The vanguard of the IInd Prussian Corps reached Saint-Aubin-sur-Aire; the 10th Brigade and the Headquarters of Kleist, Commercy and Vignot; the 12th Brigade, Fréméréville-sous-les-Côtes and Gironville-sous-les-Côtes.

Blücher would have liked to see the corps of the Army of the North at that time draw their movement towards Reims.  A long time after he wrote about it to Chernishev whose answer arrived that day, but this general commanding the advanced guard of Winzingerode and going towards Namur, announced that the Field Marshal should simply send parties on the road to Reims.[22]

The black hussars of Lützow, arrived the 3rd at Carignan, were to leave the 4th for Stenay,[23] while to the west of Mézières, the Cossacks had occupied since the 2nd , Maubert-Fontaine and pushed the 4th to Aubenton.

5 February 1814.  --Blücher intends to meet Yorck at Châlons.  --Sends the flying corps of Major Falkenhausen to Reims.  --In learning the 4th at Fère-Champenoise that the Emperor had moved in the direction of Troyes, that he later abandoned by withdrawing directly to Paris and had reunited with Macdonald; convinced that, according to the dispatch of Schwarzenberg, dated the 3rd, Arcis-sur-Aube was occupied by one of the three corps that had to crossed the river at Lesmont; that Wittgenstein and Wrede, or at least one of these two generals, was connected with the great army marching to Troyes, Blücher concluded he could, without fear for his communications, move against Macdonald.  He wrote (5 February, 2 o'clock in the morning) from Fère-Champenoise to Prince Schwarzenberg:  "If the reports state that the enemy are disposed to hold Châlons, I will move to drive them out.  If they evacuated Châlons, I will join Yorck and march with him on Paris."[24] Blücher, we shall soon see, happily for the Emperor, gave up less than twenty-four hours later, the junction with Yorck and began from the 6th, to disseminate his corps in an attempt to cut Macdonald's line of retreat and forced him to lay down his arms.  Field Marshal added in his dispatch:  "Your Highness must be aware of the direction given by Winzingerode to Chernishev.  When I knew that Chernishev was not going in person to Reims, I directed to this point Major Falkenhausen, who will be there the 12th with 500 horse.  I am in this way informed about what is happening on my right and know when the troops from the Netherlands are coming."

The commanders of the two Allied armies committed therefore, about the same time, the same error.  While Schwarzenberg constantly feared an attack, out flanking his left threatening his communications with Dijon, Blücher while continuing to march on Châlons, instead of considering the probability of a movement of the Emperor against his left and taking his concentrating army, was preoccupied with what happened to his right and the march of the troops that may come from Belgium.

Just hours after the departure of this dispatch, it was known at the headquarters of the Field Marshal, by Cossacks detached from near Vitry, that a French column had left this place headed on Cernon.  Blücher at once ordered Sacken to move from Fère-Champenoise on Soudron, Olsufiev to march on Vatry.  But instead of leaving immediately, these two generals lost precious time waiting for the return of their cavalry.  In the meantime, French officers taken the day before at Sézanne were brought to the Field Marshal and on learning from them that they were part of a convoy of artillery fire having 75 guns, escorted by only 500 to 600 men, ordered 2,500 horses to seek to meet it and so they could not, therefore, be directed against the French troops that were established at Fère-Champenoise and Sommesous.  These defective provisions would allow generals Exelmans and Montmarie to effect a junction with Macdonald and execute a retreat that would have been so easy to cut off.

Measures taken by Macdonald.  --Macdonald had not lost a moment at Châlons.  After undermining the stone bridge, he had ordered generals Molitor and Brayer in crossing the bridge at 5:30, to send their artillery and baggage to Villers-aux-Corneilles; Sebastiani to fall back at 5:45 and take position behind the bridge.  His artillery, supported by  12 pounders, was, established on the heights prohibiting approaches to the enemy, allowed the Duke of Padoue to settle in Saint-Gibrien and Fagnières, and a battalion the Young Guard left by Kellermann at Châlons, to go straight to Epernay.  The Marshal hoped to cover the three roads leading to Châlons and coming from Épernay, Montmirail and Sézanne, by sending the column of General Montmarie to this city.

Occupation of Châlons by Yorck.  --Evacuation of Vitry by the French.  --At 8 o'clock in the morning, the corps of Yorck came to Châlons and "although the French were committed to leaving everything in order, they did however blow up in withdrawing the stone bridge of the Marne.  Marshal Macdonald, whose infantry supported by artillery occupy the left bank, appears to have taken the high road to Paris with 10,000 men, almost all old soldiers, who had fought very valiantly.  The Marshal has strong artillery and 1500 horses many of them cuirassiers."[25]

"I feel", continued Yorck, "a real pleasure to announce to Your Highness that yesterday plunged Marshal Macdonald in the deepest despair.  Beaten the 3rd at La Chaussée, forced to deal with me yesterday, forced to leave his burning house during the bombardment, he said at that time to the mayor of Châlons: "I wish this bomb would have crushed me at the same time."[26]  Although the explosion of the mines had not managed to completely destroy the bridge, it never the less, had done enough damage to prevent Yorck from crossing onto the left bank and to immobilizing the majority of his forces overnight (6 February) until noon.


[1] Composition of Prussian brigades committed at La Chaussée: General von Jürgass: Lithuanian Dragoon Regiment, 1st West Prussian Dragoon Regiment: 8 squadrons. General von Katzler: Mecklenburg-Strelitz Hussar Regiment, (4 squadrons), Brandenburg Uhlan Regiment (2 squadrons), Brandenburg Hussar Regiment (5 squadrons), one squadron of the National East Prussian Cavalry Regiment, 1 squadron of Jäger: 13 squadrons. Colonel Count Henckel: 6 squadrons of the 3rd and 5th Silesian Landwehr Regiments, 1 battalion of fusiliers. Colonel von Warburg: 6 battalions of the 1st and 2nd East Prussian Infantry Regiments and two companies of jäger.
Only the 27 squadrons were at La Chaussée.  The infantry came when it was all over.

[2] The version given by the biographer of Lieutenant General von Sohr is slightly different, but seems more truthful.

Around 7 o'clock in the morning, the enemy seemed to want to take position beside the village.  General von Katzler followed with the order to pounce on the numerically superior French cavalry, when it tried to deploy.  He accelerated our attack especially as we could distinctly hear the noise of the artillery passing through La Chaussée which the General did not want to have time to take a position.  The Prussian cavalry had to be formed as soon as possible in battle formation and immediately thrown at the enemy to prevent their deployment.  By reason of the rapidity with which the Prussian horsemen would deploy and because of the difficult terrain, it was impossible to wait for all the regiments and execute a charge in line as intended.  As a result we had to settle for a kind of staggered attack in which the regiments, led by their leaders who moved them forward as they came on line, as close as possible to each other.  This kind of attack was executed with great enthusiasm by the Prussian cavalry and each regiment sought to join with the enemy faster.  The advantage remained on our side.  The Brandenburg Hussars managed to split after a fierce battle, the enemy center formed by the cuirassiers, to make a lot of them prisoners and seize, when the artillery was going into battery, a howitzer, 3 cannons and 2 caissons.  The enemy was thrown back and continued beyond La Chaussée, but it resisted even beyond the village and the battle lasted until evening.  At this time, the enemy was forced to give way to a league further back a short distance from Pogny. (Aus dem Leben des kœniglich-preussischen General-Lieutenant Friedrich von Sohr.)

[3] Report of General von Jürgass on the battle of La Chaussée, dated from Châlons-sur-Marne, 5 February; Yorck to Schwarzenberg and Blücher, La Chaussée, 2 February, 8 o'clock at night. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 56 and II, 121 a.)

[4]The standard in question was that of the Polish lancers.  It was taken by the Landwehr cavalry of Henckel.

[5] Yorck to Schwarzenberg, La Chaussée, 2 February, 8 o'clock at night. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 56.)

[6] Yorck to Schwarzenberg, La Chaussée, 3 February, 8 o'clock at night. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 56.)

[7] Macdonald, movement orders, Vésigneul, 3 February, 1 o'clock in the afternoon. (Archives of the War.)

[8] The Brandenburg Hussars of Colonel von Sohr, for example, had started at 4 o'clock in the morning, leaving Vitry at the right, crossed the Ornain and joined the cavalry of General von Katzler on the highway of Châlons a little after 6 o'clock, that is to say, an hour before the time the lead squadrons gave in before La Chaussée against Sebastiani's cavalry.  It is therefore no need to wonder why, in the evening, the horses of regiments which had charged several times during the day, were worn out with fatigue.

[9] The biography of General von Sohr contains, in its discourse about the battle of La Chaussée, then the commanding officer the Brandenburg Hussar Regiment, the next episode that we cannot refrain from quoting.

At the moment when the regiment was to start its charge, the impetuosity of an officer almost ruined everything.  He was precisely to sound: Gallop! when a young Saxon officer, having entered the Prussian service, Lieutenant Count von der S., motivated by the desire to distinguish himself, shouted, raising his sword: Follow me! Follow me! and took off on his horse at the charge gallop.  The 2nd squadron to which the officer belonged had already stirred to

follow him away from the directions it had been given. Sohr noticed, without losing a moment, shouting: Trot! and waited to start his charge once the regiment was reformed and had resumed its original direction. After the affair, Sohr gathered his officers around him, and addressing the lieutenant said to him: "You are led by bravery and I love officers that have heart.  But even I'm not armed, and if you happen to sense success on my failure and give orders to my place, you may see me strong reward you with a sword blow that you would cure you of the urge again."

The same Sohr commanded the brigade of hussars that was almost destroyed at Roquencourt, 1 July 1815, by the cavalry of generals Exelmans and Piré. Sohr, seriously wounded, was taken prisoner.  "He was," said Exelmans, "as rabid as all the devils and refused to surrender."

In 1816, General von Sohr was named to the command of the School of Cavalry.

[10] Macdonald to the Chief of Staff, Châlons, 3 February, at 6 o'clock at night. (Archives of the War.)

[11] This was the Moivre.

[12] The Marshal somewhat exaggerates the number of troops that his corps had to fight.  It had entered the line on the side of the Prussians, that cavalry the cavalry (27 squadrons); the infantry was actually only composed of a battalion of fusiliers who followed the column of Henckel, since the brigades coming from Vitry arrived when it was all over, as for artillery, there is no indication of it, neither in reports of Yorck, or those of General von Jürgass, or in those of Colonel Henckel.

[13] The French cavalry employed at La Chaussée a method which, however, it had little success in more than one occasion among others, less than a year ago, 5 April 1813, in the combat of Dannigkow or Möckern.

A few years previously, 30 January 1807, Murat on taking over the united cavalry reserves had already criticized this way of using the French cavalry. "His Highness" said the order of the day, "saw with sorrow that the light cavalry regiments had received the charge of the enemy by fire of musketry.  Experience has shown that this is the way to get overwhelmed.  The Prince rejects this way of fighting, and in the future, he will make an example to the whole army of any regiment who commits such an offense."

[14] Among the papers that General Yorck found at La Chaussée and sent to Prince Schwarzenberg with his report from Châlons, 5 February (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 123), is a curious letter written by a French officer, on the eve of battle, the same letter that we cannot resist the desire to reproduce here:

"To Mme Dumas, Rue Saint-Nicaise, at Châlons.  --La Chaussée, 2 February 1814, 10 o'clock at night.  --Madam, The road from La Chaussée to Vitry found itself filled by a little under 1,000 horses and some infantry battalions. Tomorrow, early, we will force the enemy to retreat.  The corps of the Duke of Tarente and Sébastiani sleep today in La Chaussée, the corps of the Duke of Padoue and General Exelmans at Aulnay.  These four corps debouch together tomorrow and should give a lesson to the enemy if it is bold enough to wait for us.  General Montmarie still holds Vitry with 2,000 men."

"It was only during the day that any attempt on this city was made, where we will stay tomorrow. So, Madam, do not worry, soon I hope, you will learn the distance to the enemy and your good town of Châlons especially..." (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, ad. 123).

[15] Major Mareschal to Schwarzenberg, Fère-Champenoise, 5 February (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 122.)

[16] Blücher to Prince Schwarzenberg, Fère-Champenoise, 5 February, 2 in the morning (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 121.)

[17] Macdonald orders for movement for the 4th, and General Grundler to General Montmarie. (Archives of the War.)

[18] Yorck to Prince Schwarzenberg, Châlons, 5 February. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 123.)

[19] Yorck to Prince Schwarzenberg, Châlons, 5 February. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 123.)

[20] "The 5th of  February," Beitzke tells us in his Life of General von Sohr, "the hussars were bivouacked in the suburb of Saint-Memmie, but one could hardly enter it.  The entire suburb was littered with the debris of 50,000 bottles of champagne consumed by the infantry brigade of Horn, who then threw the empty bottles in the street and all of whose soldiers were dead drunk."

Beitzke noting this fact makes a mistake.  The Horn Brigade came to relieve the infantry and cavalry of General von Katzler in Saint-Memmie, whose soldiers had looted and emptied the cellars.  Immediately after Châlons was entered, Yorck gathered his troops, addressing them with violent reproaches and administered punishment to those officers responsible for acts he planned not to see repeated.

[21] Life of General von Sohr.

[22] Chernishev to Field Marshal Blücher, Namur, 29 January. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 121 b.)

We reproduce verbatim the dispatch written in French by Chernishev.

"Marshal, I received through the intervention Major Falkenhausen, the letter addressed to him by H. R. H. Monseigneur Prince Wilhelm, on the desire of Your Excellency on which direction that our corps had to be taken."

"I am eager to bring it to the attention of Baron Winzingerode, commanding the corps.  He ordered me from Liège where his headquarters is located, to move myself with everyone on Namur, without regard to the enemy who is in Leuven and Brussels, and I fought well towards Liège."

"My light troops occupy Dinant and Philippeville, and were in positions below Givet where they expelled a garrison of 1500 men."

"I deeply regret that, no longer having a flying corps, but now commanding the vanguard of the corps, I cannot perform my moves with the same speed as in the past.  Therefore I would not let strong parties go in the direction of Reims, deeply concerned for the enemy while waiting for our arrival."

[23] General Janssens to Marshal Kellermann. (Archives of the War.)

[24] Field Marshal Blücher to Schwarzenberg, Fère-Champenoise, 5 February, 2 o'clock in the morning (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 120), and Blücher to Schwarzenberg, Soudron, 5 February, 8 o'clock at night. (Ibid., II, ad. 120.)

[25] Yorck to Schwarzenberg, Châlons, 5 February. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 123.)

[26] Yorck to Schwarzenberg, Châlons, 5 February. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 123.)


Placed on the Napoleon Series: September 2012


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