Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns

The Campaign of 1814: Chapter Four Part II

By: Maurice Weil

Translated by: Greg Gorsuch


(after the Imperial and Royal War Archives at Vienna)






13 January.  --Maison stands at Lier.  --Battles of Merksem and Wijnegem.  --While the Prussian cavalry continued to present on the right of the French position and to maneuver before Herentals, General Maison, who appeared to believe that the movement made by Bülow in the direction of Antwerp during the day of the 11th was a demonstration to divert his attention and to facilitate a more grave and more serious operation against his right, assembled the 13th in morning, at Lier, with a thousand men and three batteries, the generals Castex and Barrois, from Brussels, and the Aymard brigade which, the 11th at night, had been forced back into this small town.  The position of Lier was, indeed, happily chosen, because, it was where Maison with a respectable body of troops  occupying this point, the enemy was incapable of cutting, without being compromised, the communications between Antwerp and Mechelen.

The position of Lier also gave the 1st Corps a chance to maneuver along the Demer and the greater Nete to protect Belgium and combine its operations with those of Macdonald, responsible for covering Maastricht and Liège.

Bülow, eager to improve his situation and thinking to see on his approach the population of Antwerp revolt against the French, decided on 13 January, to attack the positions of Wijnegem and Merksem.  He hoped, by throwing them from this place, to follow them step by step up to the walls of Antwerp, reaching the emplacements of the town's corps and perhaps even succeeding to enter in their wake.

His operation had, in fact, another goal, the more serious and less uncertain.  It would allow him to settle on a position where, with the help of the British, he could, pending the arrival at the level of Winzingerode's Russian corps, destroy the French fleet in the Scheldt.

To this end, Bülow formed his troops into two columns supported by a brigade held in reserve and flanked on their right by the English of Graham.

On the right wing of the Prussians, General von Thümen was to go, at eight o'clock in the morning, against 5 French battalions responsible, under the command of General Avy, to defend Merksem.  Though attacked in front by the bulk of the column of Thümen, and on their left by the British General Gibbs, reinforced by two Prussian battalions, the French troops, almost entirely composed of conscripts coming under fire for the first time, managed to remain in the village until deprived of their leader, killed at their head, they had to give up the fight.  By withdrawing in disorder up to Damme[1], the battalions who evacuated Merksem carried in their wake of defeat the battalion of reinforcements sent by the Duke of Plaisance (Lebrun).  Thümen strongly pursued up to 800 paces from walls of Antwerp and immediately took a position on this point for his artillery.  One field battery chased from the glacis the troops who tried to deploy there, while a battery of howitzers opened fire against the port and against the fleet.

On the Prussian left wing, General von Oppen had launched against Wijnegem a column under the command of Colonel von Zastrow, composed of two infantry battalions, three squadrons and half a battery.

Another column, headed by Major von Zglinitzki (2 battalions and 1 squadron) over on the right, took Deurne as an objective; 1 battalion and 2 squadrons posted at Schoten linked the troops of the left column with those of General von Thümen and the bulk of the column remained in reserve with General von Krafft, at s' Gravenwezel (Schilde). The troops of General von Borstel served as general reserve to the two columns.

Wijnegem was twice taken and retaken by the French and the Prussians.  During the fight, the French had been reinforced by the Flamand Brigade, stationed at Damme, and the Prussians by fresh troops sent by General von Oppen.  The Prussians were finally on the verge of remaining masters over Wijnegem and pushing towards Deurne, when a small company, with approximately 200 French infantrymen and a hundred horsemen, went into Wijnegem by the road from Lier and threatening the left of the Prussians taking all hope of debouching on Deume from them.

Oppen, absolutely lacking in cavalry[2], could not, according to German authors, oppose the few escort horsemen of French lancers, whose appearance at Wijnegem had arrested the progress of his troops, and this handful of men who, by coming into line, had allowed the French to establish themselves firmly in Deurne, then to organize the defense, manage to withdraw to the village in good order and without losing too many people, in doing so, it is true prevented an outflanking.

The night arrived: Oppen collected all his troops at s' Gravenwezel, only leaving at Schoten and towards Deurne observation posts and a rearguard of 2 battalions and 1 squadron at Wijnegem.[3]

The affairs of 11 and 13 January had cost, in the IIIrd Prussian Corps, 600 to 700 men, and a thousand men to the French.

It seems at first that Bülow had reached the goal he set for himself, since he had managed to get close enough to Antwerp to bombard the town, the port and (naval) squadron.  He did not, however attain from his enterprise, all he had hoped for on his part.  He could, indeed, see from the affair of the 13th, that there was a garrison at Antwerp determined to do its duty, as the ramparts of the place were good enough and topped with heavy artillery; but he lacked the necessary equipment to undertake the siege of Antwerp; on the other hand, it was hardly possible for him in his current situation, to make a movement towards the interior of Belgium.

14 January.  --Bülow returns to Breda.  --Concerned also by the presence of troops assembled by Maison before Lier  and in position behind the Nete, by the sending of the Aymard Brigade[4] to Antwerp, fearful of being outflanked on his left and possibly turned by a respectable force, Bülow thought it wiser to retake the 14th, with the bulk of his corps, his position concentrated at Breda.  However, he left General Borstell to Hoogstraten, Wuustwezel and Loenhout, and sent the brigade of Thümen to Rijsbergen, Groot and Klein-Zundert, to connect to the English who, while withdrawing on Oudenbosch, continued to invest Bergen-op- Zoom and held their outposts at Roosendaal and Steenburgen.

The IIIrd Corps was going, skipping a few incidents that we will discuss further, to stay in these positions until about the end of January, covering the siege of Gorinchem, blockaded by the 3rd Brigade, and the investment of s'-Hertogenbosch  provided by six battalions and two cavalry regiments under Colonel von Hobe, and observe, far enough it is true, the corps of Macdonald and Maison.

In sum, the conflict of Hoogstraten, of Merksem, and of Wijnegem had no other result for Bülow, but to assure him the possession of Hoogstraten, Wuustwezel and Loenhout; points located about a day's march ahead of his former positions, allowing him to expand somewhat on the left bank of the Meuse and settle in a bit more firmly.

18 January.  --Orders of the Emperor to Maison.  --It was, in summary, by comparison of the efforts made and expectations conceived by Bülow, a relatively poor result.

Anyway, the Emperor continued with his mounting dissatisfaction and with the operations of Maison and the measures he had taken, and movements that he intended to execute.

It is evidently under the influence of these feelings that he wrote to Clarke and directed him on the date of the 18th, to inform Maison, knowing nothing of his correspondence, to invite him to provide a detailed report on affairs of 11, 12 and 13 (January).  He added: "Tell him there is no reason to think that he has considerable forces there; had he united everyone on Antwerp, he would have driven the enemy beyond Breda; instead of this, Belgium is in panic and the enemy emboldened by his shy countenance."[5]

12 January.  --Positions of Macdonald and Sébastiani.  --But conditions had progressed during the five days that had elapsed between the fighting at Wijnegem and Merksem, and the sending of this letter. The events that occurred on the Rhine from Cologne to Düsseldorf, would now make it impossible to move forward into the lower Meuse and Waal.

Macdonald[6] intended by the Emperor's orders to maneuver between Maastricht and Namur, was, according to the note on the situation in France, to move on Liège and Charlemont (the fortress near Givet), threaten the right flank Blücher, guard the Meuse and prepare for those operations, after recalling to him Sébastiani's 10,000 men with 40 cannons.  From 5 January, he had, as we said, concentrated towards the Meuse, from Guelders to Venlo, the troops of the 11th Corps and 2nd of cavalry, crossing the great river, from 7 to 8 January, with the generals Bigarré and Exelmans, and then transferring on the 12th, his headquarters to Roermond.[7]

At the same time, Sébastiani and the Duke of Padoue, after having concentrated their corps from Köln to Neuss,  probably alarmed by the news of the approach of a fairly large party of Russian cavalry under the command of General Ilovaysky, pushing forward on the extreme left of the advanced guard and seeming to head to Köln, had evacuated the city, the 12th, to withdraw by Jülich, where they were to arrive on the 15th and leave 2,000 men, near Aix-la-Chapelle and Liège.[8]

13 January.  --Chernishev crosses the Rhine.  --Affair of Oberkassel (Ober-Cassel).  --At about the same time,  Chernishev finally obtained from Winzingerode authorization, vainly sought by him for twelve days to cross the Rhine; but if Winzingerode thought it right to finally give Chernishev freedom of action, he made sure at the same time that, in case of failure, the responsibility would fall entirely on him.

Chernishev was not to be stopped by these considerations.  To deceive the enemy on the real point of his passage, the night of the 12th to 13th he cross the Rhine between Duisburg and Kaiserswerth, with two or three hundred Cossacks, who managed to capture an army redoubt of five cannons, erected in front of the mouth of the Ruhr, and drove before them a few observation posts established on the left bank of the Rhine.

A few hours later, the vanguard of Chernishev (700 men, eigers and Cossacks), under the command of Benckendorff, crossed the Rhine in a boat, near Düsseldorf.  This operation was protected by 36 pieces that Chernishev had placed in battery on the right bank to extinguish the fires of two redoubts raised by the French on the left bank and some small observation posts,  if the need arose; this advanced guard met barely a semblance of resistance.

The French, leaving the two redoubts immediately retreated and were followed up by Benckendorff back to  Oberkassel and Heerdt.  Reinforced at these points by a battalion and two squadrons, they obliged, in turn, Benckendorff [9] to retreat from Oberkassel.  First joined by the rest of his vanguard, followed by Chernishev in person, Benckendorff moved forward again with all his men and bringing the French back on Neuss.

It is obvious that if the French, though surprised by the appearance of the Russians ,were able to appreciate the real strength of this feeble advanced guard, they would have thrown it back into the river.  But what is less explicable is that the next day of the 14th, they evacuated Neuss, where Benckendorff and Chernishev immediately entered after their departure.

14 January.  --Chernishev at Neuss.  --Although his vanguard had thus managed to gain a foothold on the left bank, Winzingerode, not daring to take any action because of the ice, that continued to drift down the Rhine, only made his crossing between Düsseldorf and Köln on the following days, while Benckendorff, after having entered Neuss, continued to push on the road to Jülich.

15 January.  --Ilovaysky at Köln.  --16 January.  --Chernishev at Aix-la-Chapelle.  --Fifteen January, Ilovaysky arrived with his Cossacks at Köln, that Sébastiani and the Duke of Padoue had left since the 12th.  Chernishev, who went in person to Neuss, immediately pressed the movement of his cavalry towards Aix-la-Chapelle, invested Jülich and pushed, the 16th, to Aix-la-Chapelle.

This whole time Macdonald was at Maastricht.  He only had on his flank, on the side of Aix-la-Chapelle, the Russian advanced guard, since the main body of Winzingerode was just beginning its movement forward of Neuss. Never the less, he directed Sébastiani, with the 5th Corps, and the Duke of Padoue, with the 3rd Cavalry Corps, to take position, the 17th, at Herve, and on 18th, before Liège on the right bank Meuse.  The 3rd Cavalry Corps was be in echelon from Herve, scouting the right side of the Meuse within four to five leagues and, more specifically, in the direction of Maastricht.  Exelmans' mission was to cover the position from the left bank of the Meuse to Diest. The infantry of General Brayer went from Huy to Namur; that of Molitor was held in Liège.

18 January.  --Macdonald at Liège.  --The Duke of Tarente, having failed to gain the Emperor's permission to abandon strongholds fatally destined to fall into the hands of the enemy, resolved to maneuver on the Meuse, from Maastricht to Namur,  and chose Namur as a point of general assembly.  But he considered the situation without illusions, and in announcing to Maison, that he would move his headquarters to Liège on the 17th, he wrote: "I hope one tells the truth about your strengths.  We are in a position to stop counting those of the enemy.  Conquer or perish must now be our rallying cry."

The Marshal, had now been intending to operate for some time, along with Maison, near Diest, where he sent the 18th, the cavalry of General Dommanget.  Exelmans would gather the rest of his cavalry at Sint-Truiden (Saint-Trond) and at Tienen (Tirlemont) before moving them there, in two marches, towards Namur, where Molitor would precede him, while the cavalry of General Brayer would leave Namur to scout the road to Luxembourg.  But on 19 January, Macdonald, arriving himself in Namur, received a dispatch dated the 17th from Paris, by which the Chief of Staff warned him of his departure for Châlons, where the Emperor intended to carry his headquarters.  Berthier required Macdonald to maneuver closer to him, informing him of the course he proposed day by day and seeking to keep abreast of the movements of Marmont.  The Marshal, in obedience to the orders he had received, immediately began his movement towards Châlons, after notifying Maison of the new direction that his troops would follow.

The withdrawal of the cavalry of Macdonald from the Kempen, its movement on Namur were hardly made to facilitate the already so difficult work of Maison.  He complained to Macdonald who, bound by formal orders, merely passed on the claims of the 1st Corps commander to the Chief of Staff, in which he announced on the 18th, he would transfer the day after his headquarters from Liège to Namur.  In this dispatch, which outlines the stepwise movement that would be executed by the 11th Corps to Namur, then the 2nd Cavalry, the 5th Infantry Corps and the 3rd Cavalry, the Duke of Tarente added, in effect: "I recall my cavalry of Kempen on Namur, although General Maison tells me that if these are the general plan of operations, he can only take Leuven and move towards Antwerp. But the cavalry is too useful for the implementation of this plan, otherwise the Ardennes would be opened."

19 January.  --Macdonald leaves Belgium and moves on Châlons.  --The Duke of Tarente, whose numbers were, in fact, greatly diminished by the garrisons he had to leave in towns and the frightening progress of desertion, did not have much:  by 20 January a little over 5,500 men.  The 5th Corps was reduced to 800 men present, the 11th was from 1400 to 1500, the 2nd Cavalry Corps had only 1800 to 1900 horses, and the 3rd could put on line more than 1200.  Complying with orders of the Emperor, Macdonald began his movement on 20th in echelon (stepwise) from Namur to the upper Meuse.  His rear guard, commanded by General Sébastiani, and the Duke of Padoue,[10] left Liège on the 21st in the evening.  This cavalry was at Huy the 22nd, Namur the 23rd, at Dinant the 24th, Givet the 25th, Rocroi the 26th and 27th at Mézières, where the first echelon of the column (the division of Brayer) had arrived two days earlier.[11]

Position of the Cossacks of Chernishev.  --From the Russian side, Chernishev "without addressing the considerable distance that separated his cavalry from the bulk of the corps of Winzingerode, continued to push forward his Cossacks.  The garrison of Jülich had attempted, the 19th, to break the blockade and free themselves. The French cavalry only at the beginning of the skirmish, managed to upset the Russian cavalry; but the latter, reinforced in time, threw in the infantry who followed them, surrounded it and deprived it of a hundred men. The garrison retreated to Jülich, whose investment was given to General Ilovaysky.

January.  --Winzingerode at Aix-la-Chapelle.  --By following the movement towards the upper Meuse, the Emperor had directed, as of 20 January, for the troops of the Duke of Tarente, Winzingerode only found, in reality, no one before him when, after an inexplicably slow march, he established on the 23rd, his headquarters in Aix-La-Chapelle.[12]  In addition, after his corps took several days to defile through this city, he merely pushed up the Herve the vanguard under the command of Chernishev and sent parties to Liège.

16 January.  --Maison at Leuven.  --As soon as Maison had received news of the passage of the Rhine by the Allies and the retrograde movement of Macdonald in the Ardennes, he had instructed generals Ambert and Roguet to cover the approaches to Antwerp, now in a state of a siege and to respond to bombardment.  He had occupied Mechelen (Malines) and Brussels and had settled the 16th, at Leuven, with the division of Barrois and the cavalry of Castex.  After postings at the cross roads leading to Brussels, those of Antwerp by Mechelen, of Herentals at Turnhout and Aerschot, of Hasselt, of Diest and of Maastricht at Brussels, of Tienen at Sint-Truiden, Tongeren and Liège, of Tienen at Huy and Namur, and of Namur by Hamme in Wavre and Gembloux, he could have his choice and despite the few troops at his disposal, cover Brussels, to move to support the divisions charged with the external defense of Antwerp.  Maneuvering along the Demer, he could give a hand to Macdonald, who was still marching from Maastricht to Liège, watch this city after the departure of the Duke of Tarente, threaten the assembly point of the Allied armies, and finally retire, if there was constraint either on Condé by Nivelles and Mons, or on Lille by and Ath and Tournai.

The position could not have been, we cannot deny, better chosen.

Maison, in fact, while not yet despairing of the situation, did not conceal the seriousness of exceptional circumstances, and so he wrote the 15th, from Lier, to the Duke of Plaisance at Antwerp:  "The head of the enemy is on Diest today.  I do not share the view of those who believe that we cannot stop it.  It should at least be tried and I, myself, have no ulterior personal motive.  I only want what is best for the service of His Majesty."

"You would do well to get out as quickly as possible while resting in Mechelen, at whatever hour keep a regiment on guard ... regardless of the regiment you should already have here.  It is clear that the enemy will march to the conquest of Belgium, that Bülow will maneuver so as to join the vanguard of Blücher, who arrived in Malmedy and has already pushed the parties to Spa.  The Duke of Tarente and I must oppose him.  I still recommend you take the field in front of Wijnegem to Sint-Antonius and Schilde, as well as Brasschaat, and to occupy Lier with some cavalry and infantry, unless the enemy is in force at  Zandhoven.  Again, as long as you keep at Schilde, the enemy will not dare come with the forces at Lier."[13]

On 16 January he arrived in Leuven with the division Barrois and 400 horses of the guard, while the head of his cavalry had already been since the day before, at Aerschot.  He knew what had been done by Macdonald in the last few days.  He expected his news, since the next day he had sent his cavalry onto the Grote Nete, to Hulshout (Westmeerbeek) and Westerlo, still believing that Blücher's army marched on Liège by Malmedy and Spa, he wrote to the Duke of Plaisance and told him what he thought of the retrograde motion of Bülow.  If Maison was mistaken in attributing the cause of this movement at the approach of Blücher, he was right to say that Bülow was only making a change of position, since the Prussian general in fact was seeking to give a hand to Winzingerode.  The commander of the 1st Corps in effect added: "I cannot persuade myself he was afraid of us enough to do so only for this consideration."

But scarcely had he taken these measures than he received, through Clarke and Berthier, reproachful communications of the Emperor.  Because at this moment Macdonald had, after having evacuated Hasselt and Liège, already passed Namur, and was finding it difficult to comply with the order of the Emperor who had ordered him to focus in front of Antwerp.  Moving himself with the division Barrois by Mechelen on Antwerp and Merksem, where the division was to execute on the 22nd, with the 12 battalions he would receive from General Roguet, the order to unite at Wijnegem and Schilde.

23 January.  --Sending the cavalry of Castex on Liège.  --At the same time he sent General Castex with 3 chasseur squadrons, 3 lancers, 2 battalions of the 12th Light Infantry and 4 pieces of artillery, to Tienen.  He had been careful to prescribe for the posting of a vanguard at Sint-Truiden (Saint-Trond), to scout the enemy's movements on Liège and Hasselt and to only retire on Leuven if made to by superior forces.  Two battalions of the 72nd, 900 men strong, were, from the 21st, taking a position in Leuven and served to support Castex.  General Meuziau, directed on Hasselt with 1 battalion, 400 horses and two cannons, had the mission of flanking the movement of Castex, to protect his rear and cover his retreat to Sint-Truiden.

To comply with previous orders of the Chief of Staff, Maison took, albeit reluctantly, the steps we have just indicated and prescribed, by 22nd, a movement from Antwerp on Westmalle, Brecht and Wuustwezel.  The commander of the 1st Corps addressed, however, from Leuven, to the Chief of Staff, observations which prove that he had made an accurate account of the situation, he had foreseen all that would happen during the month of February and March, and prepared accordingly with his campaign plan:

"Conforming with the instructions of Your Highness, the Duke of Tarente is moving on Namur and Huy; and he still leaves something to cover Liège, but I predict that as soon as he leaves that position he will discover the large distance for communication from this city to Brussels that is my point of retirement."

"As I cannot, with the few troops I have, prevent the enemy from their debouchment at Sint-Truiden and Tienen and turn the line of the Demer and the two Netes, I'll be forced to abandon Antwerp to its own forces and to withdraw to the former places of Flanders... I only leave myself with the division of Barrois (2,600 men), 1 regiment of tirailleurs (900 men) and 8 squadrons of cavalry... I could get to Lille with just over 3,000 men, but I have nothing for the Condé, Valenciennes and other places.  If I could calculate on their standing on their own, it might be appropriate that I throw myself on Ghent (Gand) and Kortrijk (Courtrai); so I'd hang on longer to communication with Antwerp on the left bank of the Scheldt, and with a flank march, I could arrive at Lille.  If the enemy does not have a great body by operating by Liège on Valenciennes, this movement may greatly delay his march to the ancient towns for fear that I would fall on its rear to cut its communications; but if there is no way of resistance at Lille, it will make me to retire by Ath and Tournai."[14]

Maison, you see, had understood from January 21st all the dangers he faced when locked up in one place, all the futility of maneuvers that he could take around Antwerp, and in closing, he added once more again:

"I cannot, I repeat, cover Lille and throw 600 men at Condé and Valenciennes.  Acting in concert with the Duke of Tarente between the Meuse and Scheldt, we may still prevent the enemy from entering Belgium; but if we make the Marshal operate on the right of Blücher, it will not stop the enemy and I will be forced to evacuate Belgium."

The events were to justify the fears and the manners of Maison; but on the other hand, we must recognize that given the overall situation, it was impossible to leave MacDonald any longer in Belgium.  The movement, that the Duke of Tarente had taken from the 22nd to the upper Meuse, exposed the road to Tienen. and it was to replace the rear guard of Macdonald that Maison sent the 23nd in the direction of Liège, General Castex, with 1800 infantry, 800 horses and 2 guns.  He thus sought to cover his right and keep, as long as possible, the bridges over the Meuse.  He had, moreover, taken care to recommend to Castex just a simple reconnaissance and avoid any serious engagement.

24 January.  --Cavalry battle of Sint-Truiden.  --Meanwhile, Chernishev was the 24th half way to Liège with the bulk of the vanguard of Winzingerode, and its tip under Benckendorff, had immediately pushed forward in the direction of Sint-Truiden.  It came to a few kilometers before Liège against the column of General Castex, and who having hitherto found nothing before him, had hoped to arrive at Liège before the Russians.  Benckendorff, forced to retreat before the French, stopped in front of the suburbs of the city and warned Chernishev of the approach of the enemy. Understanding the importance to remain in control of bridges over the Meuse, he did not wait until reinforcements arrived, to enter into a very unequal and murderous struggle with his Cossacks,[15] during which his regiments held their ground under heavy fire of musketry and a hail of shrapnel and shells from the artillery of Castex.  Benckendorff succeeded, moreover, to put in a good appearance up to the entrance of reinforcements into the line, that through intelligent action he knew to take.  Leaving on his front a chain just sufficient to observe the movements of the enemy, he posted most of his Cossacks on both wings away from heat and outside of the view of the French.  To retard the progress of the horsemen of Castex, he charged with the Cossacks whenever his opponent made an offensive movement.

Even before receiving the information sent by Benckendorff. Chernishev had from the first cannon shots, prescribed to his main body to head to the battlefield to which it immediately went with 2 squadrons of hussars and 2 cannons. When it joined Benckendorff, who, forced to yield to numbers, fell back slowly and orderly, the French were about to reach the first houses on the outskirts of Liège.  Pending the return of Colonel Lopukhin who he had sent for Namur shortly before the commencement of the affair and to whom he had sent orders to fall back on Liège,   Chernishev had instructed his artillery to stop the progress of the enemy.  He had also called to him Lützow[16] who, after traversing the Rhine at Bonn on the 17th, had passed by Düren, Eschweiler, Kornelimünster (now part of Aachen) and Eupen, and had just arrived in Liège on the 24th with 2 squadrons of uhlans.  Chernishev ordered him to deploy to the right side of the road from Sint-Truiden. The Russian general did the same on the left, where he was soon joined by the Cossacks of colonel Lopukhin and those of Barnikov.  Attacked in front by Benckendorff, on his left by Lützow, on his right by the regular cavalry and the Cossacks of Chernishev, threatened in his rear, the French cavalry retreated behind its infantry, showing a brave front, and covering the retreat in the direction Sint-Truiden.

The ice, on the one hand, and the natural obstacles that made the ground impassable, moreover, prevented the Russian cavalry from taking full advantage it had won and did not allow him to continue from there to Oreye. General Castex,[17] wounded in battle, found himself on this point, but too late for him, the formal order of Maison to concentrate at Sint-Truiden and not to go beyond the city.

The Cossacks in Namur.  --On the same day and although Chernishev seemed to recall the Cossacks of Colonel Lopukhin to him, the Russian Captain Schilling entered with a small party at Namur, the rear-guard of Sébastiani having already evacuated, and  his riders appeared on the road to Brussels.

Maison, meanwhile, had executed over the course of the 24th, several reconnaissance in front of Antwerp.  On the side of Turnhout, he had pushed up to Oostmalle; on the side of  's-Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc) and Breda, to just above Sint-Job-in-'t-Goor (Saint-Job-ent-Goor) and around Brecht; on the road from Antwerp to Breda to beyond Brasschaat.  He had still noted the presence in Wuustwezel and Hoogstraten of Prussian outposts, interconnected by an established position in Loenhout.

Already at that time, and before one even had knowledge of the failure experienced by the 800 horses of Castex in Liège, Maison noted that the evacuation of Liège and Namur by the troops of Macdonald threw an alarm throughout Belgium, and it had echoed in Brussels and Mons.  As soon as he received the first notice of the unfortunate affair of Castex, he decided to abandon operations that had begun in front of Antwerp and march with the division of Barrois to the aid of General Castex.  He ordered the Duke of Plaisance to take a position with the troops of the division of Roguet to Wijnegem, at Deurne and at Borgerhout.  In the end, Castex was unable to hold neither Sint-Truiden or Tienen.  Seeing himself threatened on his left by a column from Venlo on Diest, this General had believed it all the more necessary to withdraw to Leuven, that the Russian cavalry tried to outflank on his right.  As a result, Maison set off on the 26th, with the division of Barrois, to effect a junction with his cavalry and prevent the evacuation of Leuven.

It was, moreover, all the more urgent to keep Leuven from an Allied occupation of that city in that it would have meant the immediate loss of Brussels, and the cutting off  its communications with the places of the old border of France; General Maison was therefore obliged to shut himself in Antwerp.

The slowness of Winzingerode.  --The failure experienced by the General Castex, completely reassuring him of his right, should have convinced Winzingerode to accelerate his march, as he could now move without any risk and without being exposed to any danger; but far from taking this view, he took six days to go, with nothing before the heads of  his columns, from Liège to Namur.

Winzingerode did not even move his headquarters from Liège to Namur until 12 February, when he had learned from a party sent to Tienen, that Bülow had reached its level.

Despite orders from Schwarzenberg, despite the retreat of French forces, Winzingerode persisted in believing he was too weak to take the direction of Reims and engage between the Sambre and Meuse before being master Philippeville, of Givet and of Maubeuge, and especially not before being joined by the part of his corps that was still with the Crown Prince of Sweden.  It was for this reason, moreover, that he decided only to continue his march when Bülow could enter France with him after being relieved by the (3rd German) Confederation Corps of the Duke of Weimar.

We will only take time later to a occupy ourselves with the ulterior motives of the corps of Winzingerode, who played no role in Belgium and took no part in the operations in the last days of January.

In summary, well outside the ice carried by the Rhine and two actions at Neuss and Liège, his march had encountered no difficulty.  Winzingerode had managed to advance more slowly than the Army of Bohemia.  It took more than three weeks to move from Düsseldorf and from Köln up to about Liège and Namur.  It is even more impossible to discover the reason for these calculated delays in direction; we can find no trace of criticism motivated by this excess of caution.  Arriving in Namur, Winzingerode had the ability to make his movement before he sought the cooperation of Bülow, certain that this general would only give it anyway.  From all this it is concluded that waiting for an appropriate time to cross the Rhine, then while marching with a caution that was motivated by nothing and could have even jeopardized the fate of the IIIrd Corps, and appearing only to support Bülow during the first fortnight of January, in the effort of an offensive movement on Macdonald and Maison, the Russian general conformed to the intentions of the Generalissimo, or at least of his commander in chief, and served hiding the interests of the ambitious Crown Prince of Sweden.  He was able anyway to cover his own responsibility, and he waited to resume his movement towards the interior of France, until a formal order from his sovereign.

January 19-23.  --The enterprises of the flying corps of Colomb near Maastricht.  --If, after the affairs of Hoogstraten, of Merksem and of Wijnegem, Bülow had felt obliged to withdraw to Breda, he was however careful not to remain inactive during this time.  Thus the flying body of Colomb was, by his order, moved on 15 January to Zeeland, and had summoned in vain, it is true, the commander of Grave to open the gates of the town.[18] He was then directed to Maastricht, where he arrived on the 19th, through Baexem and Venray.  With the information provided by residents, he seized the next day, at Stockem, a ship loaded with military equipment, that stopped by ice, could not reach Maastricht.  Despite the proximity of this place, located about 18 kilometers upstream, Columbus was able to unload the boat and had fallen back, the 21st on  Neeroeteren, then it entered, the 23rd, Maaseik, where it marched in little stages on Asch and Bilzen. He found upon his arrival in the latter place a dispatch from Bülow, dated the 19th, containing the order of General Kleist, to whose corps it had been attached in principle, to rejoin immediately and to establish, by connecting with one of the detachments he had sent on his right, a communication between his army and the corps operating in the Netherlands.[19]

26 January.  --Acquisition of s'-Hertogenbosch (Bois-le-Duc).  --Bülow had also prepared and organized an enterprise with consequences more important than the not completely satisfying raids of his small parties of cavalry and the taking of some convoys.  Taking advantage of the effect produced by the new crossing of the Rhine by Winzingerode and intelligence he had managed to glean among the people of s'-Hertogenbosch, Bülow[20] had resolved to make himself master by surprise of this site on the night of the 25th to 26th.  The proposed coup was successful and the small French garrison, who had locked itself in the citadel, surrendered for lack of food in the afternoon of 26 January.[21]

The loss of s'-Hertogenbosch  and incessant reconnaissance pushed by the Prussians on the side of Leuven, the retirement of Macdonald[22] and the news of the impending arrival of the IIIrd (German) Confederation Corps, and finally the presence of the Russian corps of Winzingerode before Liège, now exposed Maison, who had all the while kept behind the Dijle and the Nete on a defensive position stretching from Leuven to Lier, by Mechelen, the danger of being outflanked on his flanks and attack setbacks.  Also, few days later, he thought of a better plan.  Rather than fall back on Antwerp, where he would soon be confined, the general preferred to incur the reproaches and reprimands of his sovereign, violating the orders.  After assuring the best defense of Antwerp, which Carnot was going to command, we will see, without hesitation, to abandon the place to itself, continuing to take the field with the few troops he took with him and fell back to cover with a handful of men the bare borders and ill-armed places of former France.[23]


[1] General Ambert to the Duke of Plaisance.  --Damme, 14 January 1814.

"The enemy attacked our post at the gate before Merksem yesterday at 10 o'clock in the morning.  At 10:30 the fire became intense.  At the same time the fusillade ensued with the half-battalion of the 25th I had set behind a barricade at a chateau  in front of Merksem.  Our troops of the barricade were brought up to within half a fusil's shot range from the head of the village of Merksem.  I set on the march part of my reserve to support those troops.  The enemy was pushed vigorously and we reestablished the position of the barrier.  The enemy then threw grapeshot at this place with 4 pieces of artillery.  Our young soldiers were a little intimidated and this resulted in some confusion, but their officers brought them to their post.  It was then noon: the fire was always very keen on our left, I reinforced this point with 3 companies of 58th and I ordered the commander of the half-battalion of the 25th to follow the movement of the enemy and cover the left of the village. Our troops had sustained up to 1 hour against a hot fire and at pistol range."

"Informed that the enemy was reinforced increasingly on our left, I had to send the order to retire from the barrier on Merksem.  This movement was unfortunately executed when I gave the order to 25th Navy workers to stand to the left, as skirmishers.  They had not gone ten paces before they were killed.  Our young soldiers who were ahead of them thought they were outflanked and retreated in disorder.  Military workers stationed at the head of the village with artillery behind the abatis, rushed pell-mell into the village street and it was impossible to stop.  I immediately removed the artillery which was found abandoned by most of the gunners and drivers."

"At the same time, a battalion of Scots debouched at the head of the village where I was with General Avy and fifty men who also retreated in disorder into the village despite all our efforts.  All exits onto the high road were found lined with enemy skirmishers.  I then begged General Avy to stand at the entrance of the village to stop and reform the column, saying he would find the detachment of lancers of the guard.  At that moment he was struck by a bullet to the head and fell dead at my side ... I moved to the Ferdinand dam after rallying two infantry platoons to stop the enemy who could not see that this disorder of our troops continued a while behind Merksem."

 "The ditch of this dam was attacked by two British battalions with 200 cavalry on their right and four cannons at their front which fired grapeshot ... The two British battalions made no movement forward on the dike."

"The battalion head Canet, however, came with most of his battalion formed in sections when the enemy debouched from Merksem with a column of 700 to 800 men and 4 cannons.  He stopped marching and reduced the attack of the enemy to artillery fire and skirmishers which lasted until 3 o'clock."

"The enemy withdrew after midnight in silence and carefully; the English on Roosendaal, the Prussians by the route of Brecht, as did the corps which fought against General Roguet.  I have established one battalion on Merksem with 20 lancers acting as vedettes.  Another battalion occupies the Ferdinand dike and Damme.  The troops are established to oppose with a strong resistance despite the frost that makes all the ground firm between the Scheldt and Merksem.  The Ambert Division losses: 81 killed, 165 wounded, 45 prisoners." (Archives of the War.)

[2] The version given by Crusius appears more likely and more admissible as General von Oppen did not lack cavalry as he had with him, at Wijnegem, a squadron of dragoons of the queen (Königin Dragoon Regiment) and two squadrons of the dragoons of West Prussia (2nd).

According to Crusius after French troops appeared suddenly in the village streets and fell unexpectedly and at night on the Prussian dragoons who had dismounted.  Their horses, in the skirmish, caused a panic, which prevented, in principle, them to take necessary measures.  It was only after some time that General von Oppen managed to rally a few of his people and to compel the lancers who came to deliver this blow to fall back on Deurne.

[3] 'The report that General Roguet sent after the affair of the 13th, from Borgerhout, to the Duke of Plaisance, confirmed the facts related by the reports of the Prussian generals.  The enemy, it says had made incredible efforts at Wijnegem to debouch its columns, but without success; its skirmishers came up on the left flank of Deurne and were repulsed. Finally seeing its futile efforts, it stopped fire at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. (See report from General Roguet on the affair of 13 January.  --Archives of the War.)

[4] The same night as the combat at Wijnegem and Merksem, Maison wrote from Lier, to the Minister of War: "In this event I decided to send General Aymard with his 3,000 men into Antwerp."  Unable to foresee the immediate retreat of Bülow, he proposed that the Duke of Plaisance attack Merksem, on the morning of the 14th, and expelling the enemy at any cost, and then said to Clarke:  "I remain in the field with 1500 men of the Barrois Division and 700 to 800 horse.  When the enemy presents itself, I'll move away leaving Antwerp with its own forces.  I have two options to take, not being in any condition to fight, the one is to retire to towns of ancient France, or march by Leuven on Namur and Liège to give a hand to the Duke of Tarente and then operate in concert with him on the Meuse or the Sambre.  I beg Your Excellency to tell me which of these two options is the most suitable."

At the same time, he wrote from Antwerp, to the Duke of Plaisance and told him that if General Roguet had not kept Deurne he had to retake it at any price. (Correspondence of Maison, Archives of the War.)

In a second report dated from the 15th, General Maison adds:  only after taking the posts at Merksem and Wijnegem was the enemy established near enough to the town to throw incendiary rounds, that he had made all arrangements for the attack to force him away.  He had formed for this purpose, a small column consisting of 400 horse and 2 regiments of General Barrois, leaving the Lier, to move by Wommelgem on Wijnegem, to take the enemy in the flank and rear, but the enemy retiring for the night, left only posts that fell back at his approach.  General Maison concludes that the enemy had only wanted to know what he had at Antwerp and simultaneously try to enter by coup de main, but the rallying at Lier has forced him away. (Archives of the War.)

[5] Correspondance de Napoléon, no. 21.110.

[6] It is sufficient to read the reports and dispatches from Macdonald to see how the Marshal struggled with uncertainty until the Chief of Staff wrote to him on 10 January, prescribing for him to leave garrisons in all towns, to recall General Sébastiani and all his cavalry to him and move on the Meuse and maneuver on Maastricht and Namur and on Blücher's right flank.

 The Duke of Tarente, not knowing whether he had sufficient authority, had in effect during all this time, hesitated to give the garrison of Wesel (see Archives of the Depot of War, dispatches of Marshal of 9 January) orders to evacuate the place and to withdraw to Maastricht.  The 10th, Macdonald had let the Chief of  Staff know that General Exelmans informed him of the march of 10,000 men of all arms filing through the Kempen, to move on Maastricht and Liège.  He warned General Maison, asking him to make a diversion if this general could make his own movements and if he hadn't been specifically ordered to defend Antwerp.  Marshal announced that he would march on the Rur on the 10th, sending part of his cavalry on Maastricht, that General Sebastian would concentrate temporarily at Jülich or Aix-la-Chapelle, following the events and unite with him once, he could do something ...

The next day the 11th, at 4 o'clock in the afternoon, he told the Chief of Staff, that in light of the movement of the Prussians on Eindhoven, he fell back on Hasselt, that Exelmans would the 12th, to Maastricht, the Duke of Padoue (General Arrighi de Casanova) and Sébastiani the 12th to Venlo and Krefeld, the 13th to Roermond and Erkelenz.

At the same time, Sébastiani, still based in Köln that he would evacuate the next day, wrote to the Chief of Staff  that the enemy occupied Blankenheim and the crossroads leading to Bonn, Köln, Jülich. Aix-la-Chapelle and Liège, where he had sent a party to obtain information.  But as this point it was 14 leagues from his positions, the enemy could have made major moves in the meantime.  He added: "The occupation of Trier by the enemy puts me in a critical position, with the enemy on my front and my two flanks that are being flanked.  I sent to Bergheim 200 men and 1 piece to defend the defile and bridges over the Erft and placed us in echelon. General Albert has just informed me that the enemy is on the road to Malmedy and Spa.  I think they are scouts."

The Emperor, after having directly given, 10 January, to the Duke of Tarente the orders we spoken of, was still writing the 12th, by Berthier, the following letter that he received on the 14th:

"Chief of Staff to the Duke of Tarente.  --Paris, the 12th of January, 1814.

"I laid before the Emperor your letter of the 9th from Wesel.  His Majesty does not want to give up the towns.  He attaches on the contrary, the utmost importance to preserve them.  Regardless of the interest or hopes of negotiations with a good outcome, the abandonment of towns would be a great evil.  If the enemy establishes themselves, it would ensure their line of operations and would draw resources more easily from the country believing itself abandoned.  The enemy is not prepared in this affair for a siege.  The conscripts and National Guard left in places are organizing themselves ... The advantage of occupying the towns is to oblige the enemy to leave before them more people than there are in the town ... (Archives of the War.)

[7] Macdonald wrote the 12th, to Maison from Roermond, saying to him: "The Rhine and the Meuse are taken.  I will be  in Maastricht the 13th, my cavalry will be there the 14th.  Molitor will be at Venlo tonight; the rear guard (General Thiry) is at Straelen. (Archives of the War.)

[8] Macdonald to the Chief of Staff:  "Maastricht, 14 January, I received the letter by special messenger from Your Highness, of the 10th.  The instructions it contains will be executed.  Already the 11th Infantry Corps and the 2nd of cavalry will come together tomorrow between Maastricht and Hasselt.  The 5th Infantry and the 3rd Cavalry will be a few days in Aix-la-Chapelle; they will march to join.  During this movement General Exelmans will maneuver in the Kempen on the enemy's flank. "

Macdonald to Sébastiani and Padoue:  "Maastricht, 14 January."

"Do not say a word to anyone about this before you execute it before Aix-La-Chapelle, so that the enemy only think that you move on the Meuse.  Do not stay in Jülich nor Aix-la-Chapelle, and continue marching on Liège where I will give you new orders."

[9] "On 13 January 1814, charged by the General Winzingerode to open his march to cross the Rhine with 160 eigers of General Glebov's Brigade and 50 Cossacks, I arrived at night after a heated fusillade around Neuss and the next day before Jülich with my brigade, 2 squadrons of Pavlograd hussars and 2 pieces of light artillery."

"A very large village, that of Mernich, separated us by about half a league from the fortress. The garrison had made a sortie of about 300 men.  I placed under cover most of my men, to put them outside the range of the cannons of the town.  After a short stay in this position, bored with skirmishing without purpose, I ordered at the time a general attack at full gallop, with my hussars, in the center, on the road with the regiment of Zhirov on the right and that of Sisoev (Sysoev) on the left.  I've never seen a more beautiful unrivaled spectacle: all departed with the speed of lightning.  The enemy, astonished by our number, retired in disorder while fighting, but all of my corps reached the glacis.  The Sisoev regiment which pressed closer cut off its retreat at 110 meters from the bridge and everyone was taken or slashed. (BENCKENDORFF, Cossacks, p. 50).

While the facts are perfectly correct, Benckendorff seems to have committed an error of date.  This was not the l4th, but the 19th in January when the sortie of the garrison of Jülich took place and the cavalry skirmish in question, as we show, moreover, a little later.  The investment of Jülich began, the 15th, but we find no trace of this affair at this time.  The date error is explained by the fact that Benckendorff wrote his book about the Cossacks two years after the 1814 campaign.

[10] One of the reconnaissance of the Duke of Padoue had on the 19th in the morning, resulted in a small skirmish with the Russian cavalry on the side Herve.

[11] Macdonald, in writing to Maison a last time 21 January, from Namur, could not help but give free rein to the sad thoughts that haunted his mind:  "What a terrible situation," he wrote, "and what is providence that we save!  They say that the spirit of the city and that of most major cities, is terrible.  What has become of the energy of the French? Everyone bows his head, although there are still so many possibilities  It is not known how to put them into practice.  I have a heavy heart and a torn soul." (Archives of the War.)

[12] Winzingerode was ordered by Schwarzenberg who instructed him from Langres, 19 January, to move from Düsseldorf on Rheims. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., I, 552.)

[13] Maison to the Duke of Plaisance. Lier. 15 January. (Archives of the War.)

[14] Maison to the Chief of Staff, Leuven, 21 January. (Archives of the War.)

[15] In the affair of Liège, 24 January 1814, an enemy column of about 2,000 infantrymen, 400 horses and 5 pieces of artillery under the command of General of Division Castex and part of the corps of the General Maison, had advanced to Sint-Truiden just a league from the Meuse.  The Cossack regiments of Zhirov and Sisoev sustained for three hours uninterrupted fire of musketry and grape of the French.  The whole regiment of Pavlograd, who arrived later as support in the presence of General Chernishev, and the Prince Lopukhin with his Cossacks of Diatchkin can attest to this fact.  The enemy was defeated, thanks to the bravery of the captain of artillery Gorskoï, thrown back on Sint-Truiden in great disarray and we took, near Liège. 126 prisoners. (BENCKENDORFF, Cossacks, p. 32.)

[16] One finds in a report and unpublished manuscript of Lützow partly reproduced in the brochure: Lützow's Freikorps in den Jahren 1813-1814, p. 72, some curious details on the cavalry action:

"Chernishev called me and said: "I learn that the enemy advances to retake Liège, I ask your support for the counter attack."  Chernishev added, however, that when the fight was over, there would be no fodder for me in Liège. I responded by putting myself at the disposal of general and moved myself to the immediate defense of the Cossacks who at that time were in full retreat.  Chernishev followed me.  The artillery advanced by the road, the Russian hussars were deployed on the left and I on the right of the road.  General Maison (Lützow seems unaware that it was the General Castex who commanded the French troops) withdrew when he saw that regular troops were supporting the Cossacks.  The cavalry took shelter behind the infantry which easily maneuvered in good order, as the Russian artillery fire did it no harm.  The Russian cavalry did not try to push the squares: I thought it prudent not to attempt this enterprise because of the ice and extremely rugged terrain, we could not even move forward at a trot."

Lützow adds:  "The French movement proved to me that I could not try anything at this time at Brussels. Unable to stay in Liège, I made as a result a left by Huy and Rochefort, and arrived in Carignan, 3 February."

Two squadrons of the Freikorps of Lützow that were moved from 25 to 31 January, by Huy, Marche and Rochefort, on Recogne. The flying corps of Colomb was operating at the same time in these parts.

[17] General Castex to General Maison.  --Sint-Truiden, 24 January, 10 o'clock at night.

"I had the honor to inform you that I marched yesterday on Liège.  The enemy had come to meet me.  It introduced itself to me with 300 horses in difficult terrain and 2,000 with 2 guns when I was in the open and a league from Liège.  In spite of this I wanted to force may way through; but got overwhelmed.  The lancers made two charges on the flank that failed.  The infantry formed two squares at the level of the pieces.  Having almost no cavalry, I retired in this manner on Oreye where my troop had taken a position.  Tomorrow she will retire on Sint-Truiden and I'll send General Meuziau.  If I am forced to retire, I am headed to Tienen and Leuven.  I slowed as much as possible the march of the enemy.  The infantry has lost some fifty men; but the lancers have at least 120 men killed or captured.  I also had my troubles.  Some grapeshot hit my side: I have a severe contusion from which I suffer a lot. If I can ride, I'll stay with General Meuziau. (Archives of the War.)

[18] Colomb, in his capacity as commander of the advance guard of General von Oppen, summoned Grave to give in, and Clarke wrote to Maison, the 16th, saying: "It is certain that Colomb and Helwig are very enterprising the second is the man who travels 20 leagues a day to capture a post." (Archives of the War.)

[19] Columbus arrived in Bilzen, 27 January, finding the order in question, he then went on by Tongeren and Juprelle on Huy, crossed the Meuse, going there by way of Marche and Saint-Hubert, where he made the junction with two squadrons of Major von Lützow and crossed the French frontier between Chiny and Carignan. (COLOMB, Aus dem Tagebuche des Rittmeisters von Colomb.)

[20] Clausewitz, in his Strategic Critique expressed in these terms when it came to making his views known on the employment of Bülow and Winzingerode during this part of the campaign:

"The sending of the generals Bülow and Winzingerode on the Lower Weser and from there on Holland proves that there was not a clear idea of the situation, especially since we made them make this move at a time when we did not know if it would come immediately to France and, consequently, we would not even in the early days, need their troops.  Subsequent events have, indeed, warranted the posting of Bülow, but however one wonders what was the use of Winzingerode.  From Leipzig to the battles on the Marne in February, his troops had done nothing but make absolutely unnecessary marches. "

[21] Daily Report of Schwarzenberg to the Emperor, 7 February 1814. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 176.)

[22] Clausewitz criticizes the Emperor for having left Macdonald on the Rhine until the crossing of Winzingerode, because it was then impossible to arrive at Châlons before Blücher, and in the presence of numerical superiority of the Allies, he must above all reunite all the forces at his disposal. (CLAUSEWITZ, Strategic Critique, chap. VIII.)

[23] We summarize here for the record, the positions of the Allies on the 25th at night: Schwarzenberg was between Langres and Chaumont.  Blücher at Joinville. Yorck began his movement towards the Marne.  Bülow was at Breda; Winzingerode in Liège, Saint-Priest at Mouzon, marching towards the towns of the Ardennes and the Moselle, with his cavalry near Sedan, and finally to the extreme left, Bubna, ahead of Geneva with troops in Savoy and Bresse.


Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2011

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