Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns

The Campaign of 1814: Chapter 8, Part IV

By: Maurice Weil

Translated by: Greg Gorsuch


(after the Imperial and Royal War Archives at Vienna)






3 TO 16 February 1814.


14 February 1814.  --March of the Emperor on Montmirail.  --Battles of Vauchamps, Champaubert and Étoges.  --At 3 o'clock in the morning, the Emperor received in Château-Thierry notice of the retirement of Marmont to Janvilliers and the march of Blücher.[1]  Without a moment's hesitation, he immediately placed Ney en route and ordered Leval, who he still believed at Viels-Maisons, the cavalry of Saint-Germain, Friant and Curial to move in front of the Montmirail to meet the Duke of Raguse.[2]  "I hope to be personally at Montmirail before 7 o'clock in the morning, to attack the enemy and teach him a good lesson.  Choose a good position covering Montmirail.  It is advisable that the enemy does not suspect and is unaware of anything."[3]

The Emperor only left at Château-Thierry, guarding the bridge, 2 pieces, a battalion of the division of Meunier and 150 horses of General de France, that General Letort was to join as soon as he was relieved on the side of Dormans.

At the head of the grenadiers, of the Old Guard battalions still in Chateau-Thierry, of the Meunier Division and the divisions of Guyot and of Laferrière, the Emperor left an hour later for Montmirail.[4]

At 4:30 in the morning, the reconnaissance of Marmont had pushed to Montmort and La Charmoye, informed him that neither Russian or Prussian troops had marched on Épernay and the reunited corps of Blücher came completely towards him.  The sound of artillery arriving had been heard throughout the night.  The Marshal, who had noticed at La Caure and especially at Champaubert considerable bivouacs whose camp fires had not ceased from increasing, gave his little corps the order to fall back on Montmirail.[5]

Two hours later, the army of Blücher resumed its march in the same order as before, and the advanced guard, after occupying Fromentières, already evacuated by the rear-guard of the Duke of Raguse, met beyond this village a few cavalry pickets who retreated after a token resistance and abandoned to the vanguard of Zieten the village of Janvilliers.  Marmont's infantry continued its retirement until beyond Vauchamps, where the Marshal, preceding his troops went in person to Montmirail, where the Emperor had arrived with the head of the column that he led from Château-Thierry.  Now able to support the Duke of Raguse, he gave him, at 8 o'clock, the order to stop, turn around and immediately resume the offensive.

Towards 6:30 in the morning, General von Zieten with the advanced guard of the 2nd Corps, had gone beyond Champaubert and slowly followed the last French outposts who abandoned without a fight the farm of Les Déserts, situated west of Champaubert, almost half way between the village and that of Fromentières.  Continuing his march, the Prussian vanguard crossed Fromentières and came up against on leaving the village three French squadrons who retreated immediately on Vauchamps.  The Prussian infantry was deployed while in columns of attack to the west of Janvilliers and to the north the highway from Montmirail and a few moments later, one of the regiments of Zieten took Vauchamps.

Beyond the village, near the forest of Beaumont, south of the road, one saw in the first line French cavalry and in the second infantry and artillery of Marmont.  Eight French squadrons at that time even attempted an attack against the left of Zieten, an attack the cavalry of the General managed to repel.  Soon after, as the French infantry started to report in front of Vauchamps, Zieten sent a reinforcement of two battalions to the battalion established in the village and put a battery in position on a hill south of the road.[6]

While Marmont stood behind Vauchamps in a good position easily defended, his front covered by artillery and resting his left on a wood where he could throwback everything that sought to debouch on the high road, the Emperor, taking advantage of his superiority in cavalry, prescribed to Grouchy, under whom he had placed the squadrons led by Saint-Germain, through Léchelle-le-Franc, Hautefeuille and Sarrechamps, to outflank the right of the Prussian position, and once the fight started, to take them in the rear.

Blücher only received from his advanced guard vague new s.  Not until 9:30, still unaware of what was happening on the side of the enemy, did he send from Champaubert from the bulk of both Kleist and Sacken's corps.  A 11 o'clock, it was at Fromentières and there received the first detailed information on the projects of the French.  The vanguard reported to him from Vauchamps of the presence of French infantry in the forest of Beaumont.  From Corrobert, Major von Watzdorf informed him that the French cavalry, which massed in front of him seemed to want to stand between him and the advanced guard.  Worried about his left, which was not seriously threatened, Blücher immediately reinforced him with two regiments of cavalry from his reserve (Brandenburg Cuirassiers and 8th Silesian Landwehr Cavalry).  The French did not leave the Field Marshal time to make other arrangements.

The cavalry of Zieten's vanguard, leaving Vauchamps at 10 o'clock, was deployed in front of the village occupied by the Prussian infantry, skirmishers adorning the edge of the woods north of the road and roughly parallel to the road between the village and the foot of the plateau held by Marmont.  The only 3,000 Russian infantry supporting the advanced guard, were directed to the left and took position behind the two regiments of cavalry.  At this time, the artillery of the 6th Corps opened fire against the Prussian cavalry and against the village.  Under its protection, two brigades of the division Ricard rushed forward in two columns, one of which went to the village through the wood of Beaumont, while the other attacked Zieten head on, who was reinforced by two battalions of skirmishers established in the woods to the right of Vauchamps, having more in reserve behind the village, three half battalions, which soon, too, were engaged and blessedly allowed him to repel the frontal attack against the village.  Finally, to cover his extreme right against movements of the French cavalry, he sent the 7th Landwehr Cavalry Regiment beyond the little wood and posted a squadron of hussars between the wood and Vauchamps.  Although still very much in the air, although the bulk of the troops was still very far from him, he made the mistake of debouching from Vauchamps to pursue the French brigade whose attack he had repelled.  Marmont took the opportunity to jump on the Prussians with his infantry and escort squadron, while four service squadrons of the Emperor, led by General Lion, went around the village on the left of the 6th Corps.  A battalion of the 1st Silesian Regiment was completely routed; another cut off from the rest of Zieten's troops and thrown back on Sarrechamps was forced to disarm.  The village of Vauchamps was taken and service squadrons seized a horse battery sent to the right of the Prussian line to support the 7th Landwehr Cavalry that these squadrons had just crushed.  But Colonel von Grolmann, Chief of Staff of the IInd Prussian Corps, hastily rallied the remainders of the 7th regiment and brought back a few squadrons of hussars.  General Zieten gathered what cavalry he could find and these two officers were able to retake the pieces that were filing on Fromentières.  The remnants of the 11th Brigade, driven from Vauchamps, meanwhile, tried to join the main body.  Taken in the rear by the French cavalry, even before they had time to form themselves into squares, they are cut down and dispersed by two regiments of French cuirassiers which debouched to the right of Sarrechamps and almost totally destroyed the 3rd Battalion of the 1st Silesian Regiment and two battalions of the 10th Reserve Regiment.  Of the five Prussian battalions of the vanguard only 532 men managed to join the main body at Janvilliers.

While the French cavalry crushed the Prussian infantry retiring on the main road, the Guard cavalry divisions of Laferrière and Lefebvre-Desnouettes had committed themselves to the left of the Prussian advance guard against the East Prussian Cuirassiers and Silesian Hussars, having thrown back the infantry and had charged the 7th and 37th Regiments of Russian eiger who quickly forming squares, stopped the progress of the cavalry of the Guard and retreated without being broken.[7]

At 9:30  in the morning, Kleist and Kapsewitch marching, the first to the right, the second to the left of the roadway, had left their bivouacs at Champaubert.  At noon, the column heads, after passing Fromentières had distinctly heard the sound of battle sustained by the advanced guard of Zieten.  The cavalry of Colonel Count Haake was immediately ordered to defile at a trot along the road to reinforce and disengage Zieten; the 10th and 12th Brigades were deployed on the ridge of small hills that rise to the right of the roadway that rises to Janvilliers and descends gently to the west.  The 10th Brigade was formed in a single line north of the road, the head of the column as a pivot and the base for this deployment that took place while continuing to march on Janvilliers. But while the 10th Brigade executed this flank march, General von Pirch noticed that the French cavalry had already occupied the village situated on the right side of the front that the brigade was to make.  He immediately ordered a battalion to clear the village.  Each of the other battalions executed a conversion to left as the last battalion left the roadway, and the brigade was then deployed on the plateau falling away towards Vauchamps, its left before La Boularderie, its right on a small wood. The 12th Brigade was deployed behind Janvilliers, where it had sent two battalions, extending its right to the small hamlet of Bièvres.  Two Russian batteries, attached to these brigades opened fire against the French cavalry.  But their shooting started from too far away, produced no effect, and Prince Augustus of Prussia had, as he says in his report, the greatest difficulty in stopping this unnecessary waste of ammunition.  The Russians of Kapsewitch were deployed south of the road.  Pressing to the left of the woods of Roises, the cavalry tried in vain to cover the right wing on the side of Sarrechamps.

At this time, the entire French army accentuated its forward movement.  The two divisions of the 6th Corps, in column by regiment, advancing on both sides of the road; behind them and in the same formation came the Young and the Old Guard, followed by the Leval Division.  To the left, Grouchy was about to complete his flanking movement: to the right Nansouty has already deployed the cavalry of the Guard.

At 2 o'clock, the remnants of the 11th Brigade had finally reached Janvilliers, closely followed by the French skirmishers.  The French artillery took position.  Grouchy, instead of wasting his time in partial commitments, had continued his march, crossed the Fontaine Noire brook near Bièvres and marched on La Chapelle-sur-Orbais.  The squadron of Haake, hugging the other bank of the brook headed on Champaubert.

Informed of the defeat of Yorck and Sacken and the retirement to the right bank of the Marne, having at most 2,000 horse to oppose 7,000 French cavalry, Blücher did not dare take the fight to a position such as Janvilliers.  Afraid of being completely overwhelmed, he gave the order to retreat a little after two o'clock.  His infantry formed in battalion squares, had to march by both sides of the road used exclusively for artillery and equipment.  Some batteries were only loaded to support the squares; the rest of the artillery filed faster on Étoges.  The battalions of infantry were ordered to follow the artillery and to cover the edge of the woods of La Grande-Laye.

But we had committed two mistakes which would cost the Field Marshal if the horse artillery could follow the French cavalry.  Blücher had lost a good half-hour in unnecessary preparations, useless formations and, what was worse, he had neglected to occupy the villages further back and the edge of the woods near the road by which he sought to withdraw.

The army of Blücher, which must cross a large area of ​​open ground to reach Champaubert began its retrograde motion which it executed at first in order.  The French infantry was confined to following without too much haste to give Grouchy time to take them in the rear.  But deep mud and the marshy edges of the Fontaine Noire brook slowed the march of the cavalry, and the Allies might have managed to get ahead if they had continued their march without stopping and kept up a good pace.

A little after 3 o'clock, when the Emperor, master of the battlefield, gave the order for Grouchy to precede the troops of Blücher to Champaubert, the Prussian cavalry left La Cense-du-Rud.  Moving at a trot on La Grange-de-Vaux, north of Champaubert, it stood to the right of the flankers of Grouchy with whom it kept skirmishing.  At 4 o'clock, Grouchy arrived at the level and south of Mesnil; before taking from there his course towards the road that leads from Champaubert to Étoges, there was a halt for half an hour to give the tail of the column time to tighten up with the head.

Despite the regulated shooting by the French artillery, the first part of the retreat was effected in good order; it was only around Champaubert that a big column of French cavalry threatened for a moment the right of the IInd Prussian Corps.[8]  Two battalions of the 12th Brigade, detached north of the road on the orders of General von Kleist, however, sufficed to cover the march of the Prussian column until Champaubert.  There Blücher found in billet Diebitsch, announcing that when he arrived at Sézanne he thought to move with the light cavalry of the Russian Guard on Montmirail.  Zieten remained far away as the extreme rear guard with Russian troops, which came into line at the height of the battle of Vauchamps, tried to clear his brigade.  These troops had to withstand during this retreat, several charges of the cavalry of the Guard, supported by the artillery of the Guard.[9]

It still seemed possible to Blücher to attain without too much trouble, the wood before Étoges and defeat the enveloping movement of Grouchy.  But the Russian corps of Kapsewitch, which formed the left, could not march as fast as the right and had to, because of the incessant attacks of the cavalry of the Guard, execute its retreat in steps. Colonel von Grolmann did not lose sight of the movement of Grouchy for a single moment.  He was constantly kept on the far right with the cavalry of Haake and had failed to gain the attention of Blücher, who marched with Kapsewitch on the danger that this cavalry could have protected him from.  On the order of Kleist, he even, accelerated his march in the IInd Corps on the woods of Étoges. But the proud attitude of Russian troops, the perfect order with which they marched in close column by battalions, in reforming after each charge, clinging together, closing ranks in the voids produced by the French artillery grapeshot for two hours, had produced such an impression on Blücher, that he ordered Kleist to first slow, then soon after, stop his movement and wait for the arrival of Kapsewitch's corps at Champaubert.  There only remained a little over two kilometers of open ground to reach the edge of the woods of the Grand-Laye, believed occupied by the skirmishers of General Udom.  The situation of the army of Blücher was no less extremely serious.  Grouchy's cavalry had to deploy in four lines.  The first of these lines formed by light cavalry, the right at the road from Champaubert to Épernay, the left up to the wood, was already advancing at a trot against the horsemen of Haake, while the cuirassiers, extending the line of the French cavalry, took on the flanks and rear of the column.  Crushing the cavalry of Haake, the horsemen of Grouchy rushed to the infantry, taking them from behind, breaking its square, routing them and taking four pieces. General Laferrière, taking advantage of the disorder, threw himself on the left side of the square and increased the confusion.  It was now time to take Étoges, to pave the way for the bayonet.  While Blücher and the Prussian and Russian generals were at the head of what they could rally, making squares form and trying to reach the edge of the woods, Grouchy went up north and engaged with his cavalry on the same edge.  When the column was at the point of retreat, he rushed again, breaking most of the squares reverses, throwing back everything and was about to take Blücher, who had the time to take refuge in a square.

But Blücher, Gneisenau, Kleist, Kapsewitch and Prince Augustus of Prussia managed to stop the fugitives, to reform them, to put some guns in battery and, finally, cut a path to the woods.[10]

Night came and Ney, fearing his cavalry would wander and get lost in the woods, sounded the rally, letting the debris of two corps continue to Étoges a retreat that the cavalry alone, stopped by fire of some squares and firing grapeshot from a Russian battery, could still have cut them more.

The state of the ground had saved General Blücher preventing General Couin to execute the order of Grouchy and follow the French cavalry with two batteries.[11]

The Russians surprised at Étoges. -Despite the darkness and the depletion of some regiments that had gathered around him at Étoges, Blücher decided to continue his march up to Bergères.  The Russian 8th Division (Major-General Prince Urusov of Kapsewitch's corps), forming the rearguard, was to remain alone in position at Étoges.

The Emperor and Ney, with the Young and the Old Guard, returned the same evening to Montmirail. Grouchy's cavalry and the division of Leval bivouacked at Champaubert.  Everything seemed finished when Marmont, who had been left with the cavalry of Doumerc in this village, received the order from the Emperor to resume the march at 8 o'clock at night, following in the footsteps of the Army of Silesia and attack whatever he found.  From Champaubert to Étoges, the main column of Marmont followed the high road.  A small column of two battalions advanced by a side path and fell out before the main body at the village of Étoges occupied by the Russians of Urusov.  They, believing the battle was over, thinking that the French were too exhausted by fatigue to undertake anything, had failed to keep watch.  Unexpectedly attacked[12] when they went to get wood, water and straw, surprised by two battalions of Marmont, that was soon supported by the bulk of the corps which was reinforced by a regiment of the division Leval and had also penetrated into Étoges without firing a shot, the Russians did not even have time to form, and, with the exception of a few men who managed to escape and join the Prussian outposts near Bergères, the whole 8th Division with its head, General Urusov fell into the hands of the Duke of Raguse.  The surprise at Étoges was entirely successful.  As in all night operations that are well-conducted and well prepared, the attacking troops had lost nobody, and the results were even more significant as contact with Blücher had been regained, preventing his troops rest and increasing both his losses and the disorder of his corps.

The day of the 14th cost Blücher dearly.  The IInd Prussian Corps had left on the field 80 officers, 3.904 men and seven guns; the corps of Kapsewitch, more than 2,000 men and 9 cannons.  The total loss of the French did not exceed 600 men.

The march of Yorck and of Sacken.  --The beaten corps of Yorck and Sacken had continued their movement on Reims.  Yorck had reformed, under the command of Prince William of Prussia, a new advanced guard, composed of the 8th Brigade and the cavalry of Katzler, set in motion at 11 o'clock, had passed through the city of Reims, occupied since the evening of the 13th by two squadrons of landwehr of Major Falkenhausen and 150 Chernishev Cossacks (vanguard of Winzingerode).  This advanced guard was stopped in the evening at Villers-aux-Nœuds on the route from Reims to Épernay and had pushed its cavalry to Villers-Allerand and Sermiers.  The main body, leaving from Fismes at 1 o'clock, camped itself the same evening in Reims and around the city, where Yorck had ordered his commissariat to prepare everything to replace with new shoes the worn boots of his soldiers and to fix those that could be repaired.  Sacken established himself at Fismes and Jonchery, where he established his headquarters.  His rearguard (General Karpov) had some small engagements with the French troops who had followed his departure from Oulchy-le-Château.  The Russian general had, however, news of the vanguard of Winzingerode which, leaving from Laon, had arrived before Soissons the 14th in the morning.

Allied generals did not yet know that this place had capitulated after the death of General Rusca and Marshal Mortier, informed of this fact when he was preparing to manhandle Karpov, was stopped and awaiting the orders of the Emperor, taking position in front of Oulchy at the junction of the roads of Villers-Cotterêts, Fismes and Soissons.  Finally, the presence of the Cossacks in Épernay, on the right bank of the Marne, at Condé and at Baulne on the left bank, had worried the Guards of Honor sent to Dormans by General Vincent and posted at Château-Thierry.  The pontoon bridge at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre could not be completed until the evening of the 14th.

First manifestations of a national uprising.  --Besides the political consequences and the important benefits won by Napoleon against the Army of Silesia, the defeat of Blücher and his lieutenants had an immediate aftermath. "The whole country," we read in the journal of Schack on 14 February, "is on the move.  Today we brought in five peasants who took up arms: three of them were set free in route; General Yorck, at the request of the city of Reims, spared the lives of the other two."  Everywhere, in fact, was evacuated before the Allies.  The cruelty and violence of the Cossacks, especially the Prussians, exasperated people; the victories of the Emperor made them hope for deliverance.  Lacking weapons, farmers picked up those they found on the battlefield and formed small bands, scouring the woods, taking or killing the stragglers and isolated.  This was not yet the mass uprising, the uprising as the Emperor thought of and desired, and these gatherings, while incidental, these bands improvised, few, poorly armed, without a leader, operating by coincidence, meeting today, tomorrow dispersing, managed, from the earliest days of their occurrence, to do much harm to the Allies, causing serious concerns and requiring implementation of series of measures hitherto deemed unnecessary.

It was, indeed, a few days later (18 February) that Prince Biron, bruised at La Rothière by the fall of a horse killed under him,[13] was sent to Nancy to take the command of a mobile column formed by the replacement battalions of the Ist and IInd Prussian Corps, by the convalescents, and, which 4,270 men, 742 horses and 12 guns strong, would prevent uprisings in Lorraine and ensure the safety of communication lines.

The lack of food that the Army of Silesia suffered most cruelly had, moreover, had serious consequences and pushed everyone still able bodied to take up arms.  The profound distress, in which they found themselves, forced the soldiers of Blücher to strip the rural populations of everything they owned, and these forced requisitions, could not be executed without violence and brutality, hastening the partial uprisings of some areas.

15 February 1814.  --Departure of Napoleon and Blücher's retreat on Châlons.  --Recalled to the Seine by the progress of Schwarzenberg and the retreat of the marshals on the Yères, the Emperor, after charging Marmont to fulfill on the side of Châlons, a mission analogous to that which he had entrusted to Mortier before returning on Champaubert, left Montmirail the 15th, as we noted in Chapter VII.  Passing through Ferté-sous-Jouarre and Meaux with his Guard, who performed this new march, partly on foot, partly in carriage, he still arrived in time to stop the Great Army and cover Paris where, despite victories against Blücher, the concern had reached alarming proportions.

Although Marmont had not tried to disturb his outposts on the morning of the 15th, Blücher, not thinking himself safe at Bergères and at Vertus, had continued his retreat and put his troops in motion before daybreak.  At 9 o'clock the remains of the two corps of Kleist and Kapsewitch arrived with him at Châlons where the Field Marshal established his headquarters, crossed the town and encamped behind the city, between the roads of Reims and Sainte-Menehould.  A battalion of fusiliers stood alone on the left bank of the Marne, in the suburb of Marne.  The rearguard (the cavalry of the IInd Corps, under the command of Zieten), after surveying around Bergères and Vertus for part of the day, fell back in turn.  Followed at a distance and for a short time by some French squadrons, it crossed on to the right bank of the Marne.  He only left in front of Châlons, on the left bank of the Marne, the partisans of Lützow at Thibie and the flying of Colomb, near Épernay.

On the right bank, the mobile column of Major Falkenhausen (two battalions and two squadrons of landwehr), responsible for clearing the forest between Reims and Épernay, had during the day of the 15th encounters with several bands of armed peasants.

The Duke of Raguse had pushed to Vertus without finding anyone.  By reports of peasants, he had early in the morning, been made aware of the presence of a body of regular cavalry near Sézanne.[14]  So, fearing to be cut off from his line of retreat, he withdrew on Étoges, when orders from the Emperor and from letters of Grouchy had informed him of the imminent departure of the cavalry division and Leval.  Passing Montmort and Orbais he arrived on the 16th at Corrobert.  Now feeling safe, if he were forced to make his retirement or Château-Thierry or La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, he contented himself with menacing the troops of Diebitsch and returned to Montmirail the 17th in the morning.

16 February 1814.  --Arrival of Yorck and Sacken at Châlons.  --Far from being able, as he hoped, to give some rest at Reims to his exhausted troops, Yorck had received the order from Blücher to continue to Châlons, where his corps and that of Sacken had reunited the 16th, late in the afternoon.  Meeting in Villers-aux-Nœuds with his advanced guard, responsible for covering his march, Yorck left at 5 o'clock in the afternoon, spending the night in Grandes-Loges, arrived the 16th in the morning at Châlons and went to bivouac facing the city, his left on the road to Vitry.  Informed of the presence, in the forest of Épernay, of large bands of armed peasants, General Yorck, before receiving the order to report at Châlons by Blücher, detached at Épernay a mobile column of three squadrons and two battalions under the command of Major von Zastrow, with the partisans of Lützow and Colomb, to pacify the country and disarm the peasants.[15]  Yorck further ordered Prince William of Prussia to concentrate his vanguard at Champfleury and rally with Zastrow.  The 16th in the morning, Prince William of Prussia quit Champfleury, leaving behind General von Katzler in charge of the expected arrival of Zastrow, who joined him at 6 o'clock in the morning with his mobile column and two squadrons of Major Falkenhausen's landwehr.  Zastrow had been attacked by French cavalry and peasants, when he evacuated Épernay, and pursued by them to Dizy. Colomb, meanwhile, was forced to withdraw to the right bank of the Marne and settle in Tours-sur-Marne.  Katzler, traveling to Châlons, left in turn from Champfleury with Zastrow.  He left Falkenhausen at Champfleury, to monitor the movement of Sacken and serve as rear guard to the corps, which left at 7 o'clock in the morning for Reims, where he had arrived that day at noon, rejoining the evening of the 16th the other corps of the Army of Silesia in Châlons.

Having just entered Châlons, Blücher, received the response of Winzingerode, which announced the arrival of some of his advanced guard at Épernay on the 17th, and his main body at Reims on the 18th.

March of Mortier on Soissons and Villers-Cotterêts.  --This movement of Winzingerode would allow Marshal Mortier to follow the rearguard of Sacken beyond Mareuil-en-Dole, push his outposts beyond Hartennes, chasing the parties before him out of Soissons, to ascertain whether the Russians had evacuated the town and finally to settle in Villers-Cotterêts[16] where he had been directed to Compiègne, in accordance with his instructions.

Thoughts on the operations of Blücher and the Emperor.  --Less than six days were therefore sufficient for the Emperor to compel the Army of Silesia to abandon its march on Paris, to crush successively its various corps, to throw them back from the areas of Meaux to Châlons and to inflict on Blücher a loss of more than a third of his effectives, the greater part of his artillery, his baggage, his convoys and his equipment.

Without returning to the critical details of each of these memorable days, it seems necessary to briefly review the major events that have made this short period one of the most curious and instructive of the military history and to seek, on the one hand, to present the origins and causes of the errors of Blücher, on the other, to highlight the method of war which the judicious application and energetic execution, afterwards had won the Emperor's success that marked the beginning of his career, and which came to assure him once again the praise as great as that which had immortalized the campaign of 1796.

Never, perhaps, since that time, had the ideas of ​​the Emperor been clearer and sharper; his maneuvers never been more logical, bolder, better reasoned.  Blücher, however, is clearly not himself.  Even though genius had always been lacking, there had been a supplement in almost his entire career, except this time, of an iron will, indomitable energy, a singular motivation, and an unwavering blind faith in ultimate success.  Almost immediately after La Rothière, we saw him commit the error that must lose.  He who usually rushed, headlong and without thinking, at the first enemy who offers his blows, now hesitates.  He first wants to unite with Yorck, move towards Macdonald and destroy him.  Then, as soon as he has knowledge of the evacuation of Châlons he waives this idea so conformable to his character and his qualities and immediately begins to spread out his corps, not so much because he despises his opponent and because the victory of La Rothière made him believe in the complete annihilation of the resources of the Emperor, but because he struggled and continued to struggle fruitlessly between two opposing ideas, and between the two solutions which oppose them.  It was impossible to continue the pursuit of Macdonald that he intended to take and cut off.  But as he was determined to push on Paris, he felt too weak to undertake such an operation with only the corps of Sacken and Olsufiev, which had already sustained losses at Brienne and La Rothière, and decided to wait for the corps of Kleist and Kapsewitch.

"This was," as Clausewitz said, "something impossible to achieve since it was in this case, "to stop and march at the same time."  He had to choose between these two parties: either let Macdonald continue to retire at his ease, or run straight at Château-Thierry with Sacken, take Macdonald in a crossfire and desist, which was not without danger, from a junction with Kleist and Kapsewitch, who he was separated by a distance of over 100 kilometers.  Unable to resign himself, he preferred to proceed in a manner always dangerous and always fatal, with half-measures.  Not content to let Sacken continue, he slowed the march, returned him again to the direct route where he rallied the corps and moved from Châlons on Fère-Champenoise, where it was impossible to move on Montmirail without going back to Bergères.  It is, in reality, this movement, as Clausewitz himself is obliged to condemn, which consummated his loss.  The confidence of Blücher was so great that, 10 February, when the Emperor crushed Olsufiev at Champaubert, he wrote to his wife from Vertus: "We're no more than 15 miles from Paris.  In eight days we will certainly be under the walls of the capital and is likely that Napoleon will lose his crown."[17]

Then, suddenly, after refusing to admit the possibility of a march that would bring the French army on the left of his army, Blücher passes from insecurity of the most absolute irrational fear, to the most illogical shyness.

It is on this march of Blücher on Fère-Champenoise that Napoleon must have found the corps of the first line of the Army of Silesia staggered, without support of each other over a long line, unrelated to the corps of Yorck who marched alone to the right.  The composition of the columns was as defective as the directions they were given and the positions they occupied when Napoleon prepared to puncture the center of the Army of Silesia.  Not just content to leave Olsufiev alone and in the air at Champaubert, Blücher found it unnecessary to attach some cavalry to his little corps.  He himself, though he knows that Kleist and Kapsewitch will only bring him some squadrons, has run all his cavalry in front of the column Sacken.  This is a surprising mistake to see committed by a cavalry officer, a general who, until the last moment, never ceased to be primarily a deliverer of grand saber strokes.

His immobility during the days of the 11th and 12th, an inaction so contrary to his spirit, usually so enterprising, explains even the less why he would resume the advance on the 13th, a time when there was more reason to rest, at a time when it would not be as fatal to him.

"As," says Nostitz, "we did not back down, you could not move, and we stopped at Bergères and at Vertus; but Blücher should not have budged and not let the Emperor return to the Seine after the defeats he had inflicted on Sacken and Yorck."

If it was, on the other hand, impossible for Blücher, because their corps belonged to two different nations, to entrust the chief command in one of the two generals who operated against Château-Thierry and La Ferté-sous-Jouarre he should at least by specific and formal orders clearly determine their role and characterize their operations to the battle he ordered them to risk, when he prevented, as was Yorck, to withdraw without fighting on the right bank of the Marne.  He knew the character of Yorck and Sacken.  He knew that one was ardent, ambitious and burning with desire to find the opportunity to distinguish himself, the other, on the contrary, was cold, methodical, prudent but energetic.  He knew that the Russian general, only too happy to find an opportunity to compete with the Emperor, would not lose a moment to stand against him; that Yorck without being undisciplined, had a natural tendency to interpret orders and not comply fully after having recognized the possibility and desirability of their execution.  And yet he sends instructions that are vague, because they bear the imprint of combat that lived so fully in the spirit of the Field Marshal.  Their obscurity, their contradictions are the causes of the second check administered to the Army of Silesia.  Of the three corps which had to bear the brunt of the French army, the first was destroyed, the other two were only shapeless debris, thrown back in disorder after a heroic struggle, it is true, on the right bank the Marne, but absolutely unable to make another effort and needing a few days at least, before taking a serious part in active operations.

Under these conditions, one can understand the caution, believing the Emperor on the march again towards the Seine, Blücher felt out the position of Marmont on the 13th.  Beat one moment, surprised and astonished, he again gave in to his obsession.  Taking his desires for reality, he again thinks that the road to Paris is wide open to him. The slight advantage he won the 13th against Marmont, completely restored confidence in the spirit of the old Field Marshal.  "I just spent three tough days," he wrote to his wife from Étoges.[18] "Napoleon has in three days, attacked me three times with all his forces, including the Guard.  But it has not served his purpose and now he is in full retreat on Paris.  I will pursue tomorrow."

His last illusions had, however, to be dissipated.  When it was seen, that the marshal (Marmont) was resolutely back on the offensive, the 14th in the morning, and although the lack of cavalry prevented him from obtaining creditable information about what happened behind the positions of the Duke of Raguse, the Field Marshal should have known of the return and the presence of Emperor.[19]  Repeating the maneuver that had succeeded so many times during the Autumn of 1813, he would have had to steal away and break off the fight immediately, but he could not avoid commitment because of the staging of his troops and large distance between the front edge of the corps of Zieten, Kleist and Kapsewitch.

However, once the battle was engaged, and at the time of just when everything seems lost, we find the true Blücher, who, sad and silent, overwhelmed with sorrow, seemed hitherto to ignore everything and did not even try to use his influence on his soldiers.[20]  Surrounded on all sides, taken in the flank and rear by the French cavalry, he did not despair, and it is to his admirable energy, the example he gives, the cold indifference with which he confronts the danger, calm and composure which the old Field Marshal demonstrated in such critical circumstances, that the debris of the two corps owe their salvation.  It is his voice that Russians and Prussians, exhausted by a series of battles more disastrous than the one before, flushed successively from each of their positions, demoralized by the losses that were caused by the fire of the French artillery, found the force needed to make one last effort and open the road to Châlons.

Just one sentence suffices, moreover, to paint the picture of Blücher.  When the old Field Marshal, about to be hit by a charge of Grouchy's cavalry, took refuge in the square, he found Gneisenau and, as if this had ceased to exist for him, thinking only of the future, which however, seemed not to concern him, he said:  "If I do not get killed today, I will not delay to repair this."

Blücher was not able to keep all of his word.  The commander of the Army of Silesia was not killed by the blows of Champaubert, Montmirail, Château-Thierry, Vauchamps and Étoges. The Army of Silesia was not destroyed, as the Emperor wrote to Joseph.  The arrival of reinforcements, a few days' rest at Châlons, the iron will of its leader will remount in a few days to resume the campaign and revenge, less than a month after the defeats it had received.

If the hesitations, the delays, the half-measures motivated by the desire to achieve at the same time a dual purpose, and especially an incorrect assessment of the situation led to the setbacks of Blücher, the wisdom, the insight, the power of the reasoning glance and speed of movement through an area thought impractical earned the Emperor success which he was not accustomed, to advantages which, without a contest of fatal circumstances, could be decisive and stop the invasion.  Preparing for the retirement from Troyes on Nogent, the operation he wanted to perform, and although unable to penetrate the real causes of the division of the Allied armies, the Emperor has already decided to take advantage of the negligence of his opponents to throw himself on one of the two fractions, all the forces at his disposal and take the Army of Silesia in an unfavorable position which will ensure success.

While the instructions of Blücher lacked their usual clarity and precision, that for the Field Marshal not knowing what course to adopt, renounces his usual laconic style and is lost in conjectures and suppositions, the orders of the Emperor are written in an imperative style, firm, a true reflection of his character, in a style that betrays no hesitant thought, allows no doubt, leaves no room for interpretation, which sets up the main details for execution and proves that Napoleon still has the decision, firmness, presence of mind, the look and clarity that constitutes the glory of Bonaparte.

Everything in the magnificent operation was rational, planned and carefully calculated.  Although the corps of Schwarzenberg also remain in echelon, although to reach Napoleon it would not have a long or difficult march to perform, he did not hesitate.  He knew that Schwarzenberg remained before him, that, even if the generalissimo was obliged to accept battle, Blücher would not stop and would continue his movement on Paris.  It was therefore necessary that Blücher fall, primarily because he was the most active and the most enterprising, then because he was numerically smaller, finally, because if the marshals stood firm on the Seine one could, after destroying the Army of Silesia, outflank the right of the Great Army, debouch at its rear, compromising its communications and forcing it to retire precipitately on Upper Alsace and the Rhine.

To march against Blücher, to appear on the Marne when thought cornered at the Seine, it was one of those surprising and unexpected operations that would appeal to Napoleon, because it looked like a trick, and as any surprise, it should produce its full effect.  He had to perform this operation, two roads, as Blücher had on his side the choice between two parties.  One, that of Provins to La Ferté-Gaucher, the shortest, most direct, best, allowed him ahead of Blücher, the Marne and the closer to Paris. The other, longer, more difficult, impractical for anyone but him, led by Sézanne on the left flank of the Army of Silesia, allowed him to surprise, to burst its center and placed him in the middle of its scattered corps.  In his position he had to resort to grand means, to decisive measures.  He did not hesitate a moment.  Passing through the swamps of the forest the Traconne, he crushed Olsufiev, and from the first day of this memorable campaign of five days, he had already achieved his goal: separating the Army of Silesia in two sections, providing numerical superiority there.

From Champaubert, the Emperor could take two courses: either move right against the corps leaving Châlons, or head, on the contrary, against those who had followed the Duke of Tarente.  Going right, by joining Marmont, he was almost certain to beat Kleist and Kapsewitch: but it was not likely that their line of retreat to Châlons would be able to be cut off, and in addition, one could imagine that taught  by the harsh lesson received by Olsufiev, Blücher would not expect the shock of the return.  Going to the left as he had resolved while the fighting was still going on at Champaubert, he abandoned, it is true, the Duke of Raguse, but he had a chance to corner Yorck and Sacken at the Marne, to take them between fires and forcing them to lay down their arms, if, as he hoped, Macdonald, reporting forward, emerged in their rear.

The only criticism that could be addressed to the Emperor was having left Saint-Germain and Friant at Viels-Maisons and have them run unnecessarily on Montmirail where they were to provide support to Marmont whose position was risky enough.

When Yorck and Sacken had managed to bring the rest of their corps to the right bank of the Marne, the Emperor had intended to return directly to the Seine.  Still believing Soissons was held and these two generals "were," as he wrote to Joseph[21] " well embarrassed," he did not think to cross the Marne after them.  But on the new movement that Blücher  made towards Étoges, he hastened to take advantage of the golden opportunity that was offered to him.  Returning immediately to the march, he rushed Blücher, certain of overwhelming him with superior numbers and completing his defeat.

In four days he defeated successively each corps of the Army of Silesia. "Evidence shows," Müffling is forced to exclaim, "what can be produced by activity attached to decision."

In these magnificent results, Napoleon was indebted to more than the faults of the coalition, more than the carelessness and errors of Blücher, but to his marvelously  keen eye, to the sharpness of his conceptions and the rapidity of his movements.  Never since 1796, even in the marches he took to arrive on time in Dresden, had he demanded and obtained both from his troops.  Never had he more fully demonstrated how to conduct war with the general's head and the soldiers legs.  Never, no more, were the high military talents of the Emperor manifested themselves more vividly.  No time in history has showed any such fine examples, such useful lessons, as complete a course of warfare that wonderful campaign of six days, each of which was marked by a stroke of genius, by unheard of marches, by brilliant dispositions, by a new victory.[22]

But never, no more, was fate pursued more savagely, nor made him feel more harshly its seriousness than during the different stages of this triumphal march.  Never, no more, would the hand of Providence, while rewarding his efforts, allowing him to savor the delights of victory, would also completely appear in snatching the almost fruit from his wonderful combinations.  The destruction of the bridge at Trilport, the death of General Rusca, the fall of Soissons, the mistakes and negligence of the marshals who have left intact the bridge of Bray and had to abandon the line of the Seine, forcing the retirement on the Yères, preventing the taking of the immediate and full advantage of his victories, to put an end to the horrors of invasion and forcing him to abandon this outflanking movement, which will cause the loss after the Battle of Arcis, but which run at that time, could compel the Allied armies to evacuate the country and ensure the salvation France.


[1] Nostitz says in his Tagebuch that he was introduced by Blücher at Étoges, to a Frenchman pretending to be the Count of Ferrières, who claimed he was a supporter of the Bourbons, a mortal enemy of Napoleon.  Blücher, seduced by the hatred against the Emperor manifested by this man, kept him at his table, discussing in his presence the political and military situation, giving orders, reading reports.  "In the evening, Count Ferrières disappeared," said Nostitz, "and we never saw him again.  Without evidence I cannot speak on his behalf.  But the events of the following day, and especially the fact that the enemy knew our strengths and dispositions, leads me to believe that instead of having dealt with a zealous royalist, we found ourselves in the presence of a spy working for the Emperor." (Kriegsgeschichtliche Einzelschriften, V. 1889: Tagebuch des Generals des Kavallerie Grafen von Nostitz.)

[2] Chief of Staff to Leval, Saint Germain, Friant and Curial. (Records of Berthier, Archives of the War.)

[3] Correspondence, No 21247.

[4] The Emperor believing Blücher at Épernay or Châlons thought he had to deal with Wittgenstein. (Letter to Joseph, Château-Thierry, 14 February, 3 o'clock in the morning; Correspondence. No 21253).

[5] Marmont to the Chief of Staff, Fromentières, l4 February, 4:30 in the morning. (Archives of the War.)

[6] History of the 1st Infantry Regiment of Silesia, no 10; History 1st Infantry Regiment of Upper Silesia, no 22, and Report of General von Zieten on the battles of Vauchamps and Champaubert.

[7] Beiheft zum Militair-Wochenblatt:  "We learned (a little before noon)," said General von Zieten in his report, "that the French cavalry had gone around the village of Vauchamps on the right.  I immediately sent to this side an infantry battalion who had been posted up to that time in the first line, to take position in a wood not far away and to the right of Janvilliers.  A battery stood to its right.  It was covered on the right by the 7th Landwehr Cavalry, a 100 horses strong.  From this moment, it was easy to guess the intentions of the enemy.  It sought to go beyond the two wings with its cavalry.  In other circumstances, I would not hesitate to withdraw my infantry from Vauchamps and make a new position further back; but I had orders to hold this village at any cost which we thought we would need to debouch from there on Montmirail.  In the presence of the French infantry attacks, I was left with nothing else to do but to reinforce, with two other battalions, the two battalions, having started to bend, which had been driven out of the village.  In a few minutes, they had taken Vauchamps.  But this time, the French cavalry fell on my right wing, overwhelming it, crushing the 7th Landwehr Cavalry Regiment and penetrating the battery.  Withdrawing in steps by firing salvos, it only gave up less than half of its pieces to the hands of the enemy.  I hastily rallied the remnants of the 7th Landwehr Cavalry and charging at their head, I managed to save the rest of the artillery.  The French infantry had the opportunity to renew its attacks against Vauchamps so I gave the order to evacuate.  The battalions which retreated, charged on leaving the village by the French cavalry, were cut off and surrounded and despite the efforts of my cavalry cut down and taken prisoner."

The author of the History of the 1st Regiment of Upper Silesia no 22, completely agrees and these data gives us interesting details about the charge against the Russian squares.  "The French cavalry," he wrote, "its momentum slowed by the broken ground, could only move forward at a trot.  It tried, however, to penetrate the squares.  They let them get up to 60 meters and forced them by the fire of their volleys and the grape shot of their artillery, to abandon their attempts."  Finally, there is, in the History of the Silesian Regiment no 10, the exact number of casualties of this regiment during the day of the 14th.  They were 9 officers, 60 non-commissioned officers and 883 men killed or wounded; 25 officers, 46 non-commissioned officers and 758 men made prisoners, or to the regiment, a total loss of 1781 men.  The remnants of the regiment and those of 10th Reserve Regiment formed only one battalion afterwards.

[8] Report of Prince Augustus of Prussia.

[9] General von Zieten talks about this in his journal of Operations:  "The French cavalry charged and enveloped the Russian squares five times without penetrating them.  Russian battalions demonstrated during the retreat unparalleled strength and an admirable composure."

[10] Prince Augustus of Prussia (son of Prince Augustus-Ferdinand, brother of Frederick II), on the retreat from Champaubert on the woods of Étoges in these terms:

"As we feared to see the Russian artillery and that of the 10th and 12th Brigades embroiled in the clayey soil and broken up we made it beat a retreat by the roadway of Étoges, and the brigades remained without artillery.  With more and more French cavalry approaching, we ordered the columns in battalion to tighten up on the roadway, so they could support each other.  Three times large masses of French cavalry attempted  break three sides of the squares of the 12th Brigade; but every time their charge came crashing against the fire carried out on my order when the riders arrived at 30 paces.  Following each of these charges, the brigade resumed its march on the run to the sound of music.  My soldiers, animated in the best spirit, singing songs of war.  A little before reaching the forest of Étoges, the French cavalry succeeded by a final charge to flank the extreme right of the IInd Corps slipping between the forest and the road and was about to seize Field Marshal Blücher and his staff.  Placing myself at the head of the 2nd Battalion of the 2nd Regiment of West Prussia and pushing to the hurrahs my men, I moved at a run without firing a shot in front of the cavalry who did not dare push further."

[11] General Fabvier, in his JOURNAL places special emphasis on this and examines the considerable results that would have been produced by bringing the light artillery of Grouchy in line:

"At Vauchamps in 1814, in the winter season, Marshal Blücher found himself surprised and mauled by the French army.  We cut into his troops from all sides, taking many prisoners.  He had little cavalry contrary to the habit of the Prussian troops, and we had a sizable body.  The Prussian infantry, disconcerted, contracted into a compact mass, seeking, thanks to the fall of the day, to effect their retreat by the high road of Châlons."

"The Prussian generals, including Marshal Blücher, made extraordinary efforts to support, through their example, their troops ready to give up.  During this time a great movement of cavalry with horse artillery was made by the left of the French army to gain the rear of the Prussian army."

"This column arrived indeed, but without artillery.  The ground too hard at this season, delayed it.  It is likely that some pieces could have followed, but the Gribeauval caissons could not take it.  What happened there?  It is that this movement of the cavalry that was the ruin of the enemy, yet already underway and hotly pursued, produced no effect.  The French cavalry placed well to the rear and circularly enveloping the Prussian troops, cut off their retreat. It tried several charges which were unsuccessful despite the disorder of the enemy infantry.  Some pieces of artillery would have sufficed to cut into these compact masses creating havoc and into which the cavalry could easily penetrated.  Instead the enemy managed to gather a few pieces of Russian horse artillery and forcing our cavalry to stop, he could finish his retirement."

"We might have developed, in such a circumstance, a few pieces of artillery, very mobile, able to overcome the difficulties of the ground.  Twenty cannon shots would probably have ensured a complete victory that might have decided the fate of the war."

[12] Prince Augustus of Prussia said about the affair of Étoges, that the Russians rushed through his battalions and broke. "The French cavalry and infantry", he adds, "entered along with them in our ranks without firing a shot, knocking with rifle butts, running through with bayonets, riddling with saber, the soldiers as they drove to the outskirts of the village, where I was able to rally them.  I continued my retreat unmolested, to Bergères-les-Vertus." (Report of Prince Augustus of Prussia. Kriegs Archiv. of Berlin, E. 20, S. 19, E. 25 and S. 78, cited by Kriegsgeschichtliche Einzelschriften herausgegeben vom grossen Generalstabe).

[13] According to the Tagebuch of Count Nostitz (Kriegsgeschichtliche Einzelschriften) which reported the account of the aide of Biron himself, Major von Strantz, Biron was not bruised, but was forced to leave the army following a violent attack of gout.

[14] We have explained in detail in Chapter VII operations against Diebitsch against Montmirail because the general was directed to this point at the head of troops belonging to the Great Army of Bohemia.

[15] "The rural inhabitants armed themselves and took back for me many prisoners; the country's spirit is excellent.  I will call men from neighboring towns and organize what I can gather.  Send me some cavalry and infantry to support this movement and build on the general momentum that is taking place.  The levy of Épernay defended the city against enemy cavalry who withdrew." --General Vincent to the Chief of Staff, Château-Thierry, 15 and 16 February.  (Archives of the War), and Moët to General Vincent. (Ibid.)

[16] Mortier to the Chief of Staff, Villers-Cotterêts, 16 February. (Archives of the War.)

[17] Von Colomb, Blücher in Briefen.

[18] Von Colomb, Blücher in Briefen.

[19] Nostitz and Lieutenant General von Gerlach, on being allowed to issue the 14th in the morning some doubts about the possibility of marching on Montmirail, were severely checked by Gneisenau.  "In similar views," said the Chief of Staff of the Army of Silesia, "if they were to be known by the troops, it would demoralize.  However, Napoleon had to be at that time already near the banks of the Seine."  (Kriegsgeschichtliche Einzelschriften: Tagebuch der of Generals Kavallerie Grafen von Nostitz.)

[20] Tagebuch des Generals Kavallerie Grafen von Nostitz.

[21] Correspondance, no 21236.

[22] Prince Augustus of Prussia (See Nachlass. Kriegsgeschichtliche Einzelschriften 2, 60) expresses himself in these terms: "The Emperor's star shines again in its former splendor.  The uninterrupted series of victories against the most formidable of his opponents seem to justify Napoleon's exclamation after Champaubert:  "I am closer to Munich than to Paris."  Confidence had returned.  The soldiers were electrified.  The mass levy was taking place in the valley of the Marne and the courage and hope to the people returning.  People compared the situation of the Prussians to that of the French in Russia in 1812.  We expected to see the Prussians beat a retreat and retire from Champagne to the Rhine."


Placed on the Napoleon Series: May 2013


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