Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns

The Campaign of 1814: Chapter Six Part I

By: Maurice Weil

Translated by: Greg Gorsuch


(after the Imperial and Royal War Archives at Vienna)





BRIENNE and LA ROTHIÈRE (26 January.  --3 February).

26 January.  --The general situation of France and the Emperor.  --When the Emperor Napoleon and Blücher arrived almost simultaneously on the Marne, the physical condition and morale of the French armies and coalition presented features so exceptional that we cannot make a statement on operations before we throw a glance, on one hand the situation that from a combination of circumstances, each more unpleasant than the others, had been made for the Emperor, and on the other the intensity of the different political currents, that tossed the headquarters of the sovereigns, that changed moment by moment, in many different directions, the nature and character of the operations of the Allied armies.

Never has a commander in chief been more poorly supported, never a sovereign more badly served than Napoleon during the few weeks that had elapsed since the resumption of hostilities, however, despite significant symptoms that had stricken the spirit, no more so one observes than his own, he still could not resign himself to accept the ingratitude, produced by discouragement and satiety, that had taken such deep root in the heart of those he thought he had bound forever by incessant benefits.  He refused to believe that soldiers of fortune that he had, as a reward for their services, covered with honors, bestowed titles, enriched by donations, that he had made marshals of the Empire, dukes and princes, who owed him everything, even their glory, tired of fighting, would remain cold and indifferent in the presence of danger which threatened the country.  He did not get the idea that they felt they had paid enough of their debt to their benefactor and France and like courtiers who have arrived at the pinnacle of greatness, they aspired, mostly for a rest to allow them to enjoy a peaceful well-being and wealth that came from his generosity.  Their zeal had cooled, their dedication had weakened when they found that the star of the great captain declined.  The snow and ice of the winter of 1812 had extinguished in their heart the afterglow of the wonderful and great ardor of 1806, 1807 and 1809.  The retreat from Russia and the disaster of Leipzig had shaken the faith, hitherto blind, of marshals in the fortune, in the engineering and the invincibility of the most illustrious man of war.

Discontented and discouraged, they displayed an unusual weakness in the exercise of command and they brought a reprehensible negligence and an unwillingness that was almost criminal in the execution of orders through which the Emperor hoped to reach and safeguard the integrity of national territory.  Convinced of the fruitlessness of the fight that Napoleon was determined to support and unable to save the country, they prepared, no doubt unconsciously, for his loss, in incomplete reports to the Emperor and in a hopeless situation certainly serious but they believed necessary to examine and deepen.

Reasons for sending Berthier to the front.  --State of mind of the marshals.  --For that very reason, guided by his wonderful instinct for things of the war, the Emperor, detained in Paris by the complex task that he had to perform, to solve urgent questions and difficulties of all sorts that he had to overcome and overcome before joining the army, sent Berthier 20 January for the outposts.  This was also why the Chief of Staff had tried to postpone the marshals leaving for the front and forced Victor to deliver, albeit at a disadvantage, a fight at Saint-Aubin and Ligny.  Napoleon hoped, and by his criticisms and the instructions he had charged the Chief of Staff to send them, to rouse the zeal of his lieutenants, who since the entry of the Allies into France had indulged in an unpardonable softness, binding themselves for the first time in a new formalism with it, had fallen into outdated habits contrary to the precepts that Napoleon thought he had correctly instilled, and the principles he had never ceased to apply successfully for almost 20 years.  They fell asleep in inaction and routine at the same time, to use an expression of Clausewitz, "he would have had to rise above the usual rules and replace methodical war with the most extreme audacity."  Despite the lack of means at their disposal and the weakness of their troops, the marshals, with the exception of the Duke of Trévise, could have, as we noted, taken advantage of the natural barriers that separate the valley of the Rhine with the plains of Champagne.  Yet they had abandoned, almost without a fight, the Hunsrück and the Vosges, the Jura and the Ardennes, the Saar and the Moselle, the Meuse and the Argonne Forest.  They had not once tried to take advantage of the mistakes, with so many made, the slowness of their adversaries and the unexpected and so frequent fragmentation of their troops.  They did not even once pretend to stop.  Completely losing sight of the ultimate goal, they did not know, not wanting to regulate their movements, not just those of the enemy, but even those of their colleagues.  They had repeatedly missed the opportunity to impose a partial defeat on of the enemy, to upset its plans by stopping or at least slowing its progress and providing their leader, their sovereign, with the time he needed to achieve objects with some chance of success, and at the head of forces barely sufficient for Allied operations.  If they could not, we do not hesitate to recognize, adhere strictly to the scheduled route given by the Emperor and keep the enemy out of reach and away from the Marne until 12 February, as Napoleon had prescribed to Victor,[1] nothing, however would have been easier than acting on the frequent disorder in columns before them and making them lose eight to ten days, which would have completely changed the face of things, and preventing situations of an extremely grave character that Napoleon had assumed when he arrived at Châlons.

Consequences of the hasty retreat of the marshals.  --This was, above all, the fault committed by Victor, Marmont and Ney, in their hasty and selfish retreat towards the Marne.  It has been, not unreasonably, pointed out that the Emperor had arrived too late to Châlons, and that his presence would not have led the army to any other result, than if he had personally taken the lead from 20 January.  "It is regrettable," expressed A. G., the former student of the École Polytechnique from which we have the remarkable work on the Maxims of Napoleon, "that he did not come to take command of his troops eight days earlier. He might then, ignoring the bulk of the Army of Bohemia, have rallied Victor and Marmont between Toul and Nancy, reinforced by the troops of Ney and Mortier, and resumed, with nearly 40,000 men, the offensive against Blücher, throwing him back from the Moselle and up to the Saar, despite the assistance the Field Marshal would have received from the right wing of the Army of Bohemia. Getting rid of Blücher, Napoleon, then could have rallied Macdonald and his new formations between Bar-le-Duc and Châlons, turned against Schwarzenberg, whose position would have been all the more dangerous as he would have penetrated deeper into basins of the Seine and the Marne.  At the head of 60,000 men, he might have forced him to withdraw or at least prevented from moving forward."[2]

It is undisputed that the plan, which is, moreover, almost exactly that which Napoleon employed a few days after La Rothière would have produced at the time of January 20 to 25, those A. G. records, infinitely more significant results than the beautiful march of the Emperor against Blücher would bring about a fortnight later.  But it seems that there is less to blame Napoleon for staying in Paris, where his presence was indispensable to the last moment to fill every need and complete the new training, than to Marmont, Ney, and especially Victor whose abrupt retirement to the point of having, in their precipitation failed to destroy the bridges of Frouard, of Bouxières and of Pont-à-Mousson, and falling back without giving a rational and consistent direction to their movements, without determining beforehand a common rallying point and without any attempted of a counter-offensive.  It seems indeed that if they had only thought to consult each other and to concentrate their efforts and their troops on one point, the marshals could have at least delayed the Allied advance enough so that in arriving at Châlons on the 26th in the morning, the Emperor could, even if they had just by occupying a position in the path of the opponents rendered them cautious by the resistance that they found in the way, direct his first blows against Blücher, still separated from the Army of Bohemia.  He then would have had a greater chance to inflict a defeat which the immediate and future consequences would have been even more significant than a failure would have served, to the detractors and enemies of the Field Marshal, a compelling argument to destroy, never influence and to silence throughout the remainder of the campaign his voice in the councils of the Allied sovereigns, which never ceased to defend and did, ultimately, triumph because of the offensive.

Observations on the choice of Châlons as a point of concentration.  --People on the other hand criticize, but wrongly, in our view, the choice made by the Emperor of Châlons as a general point of concentration for the troops that he gathered there.  It has been claimed, with Clausewitz, that instead of deciding to fight the Allies between the Marne and Aube, Napoleon should have chosen at the start of the campaign a position southeast of Paris and concentrate in the basin of the upper Seine on a defensive position behind the Burgundy Canal, near Dijon and resting on Auxonne and Besançon covering the road from Lyon to Paris.  But admitting, even for a moment, that Napoleon had taken command in person of the forces massed on this point, he would only have been able to bring together an army there and much smaller in number than Schwarzenberg.  Moreover, just as any other considerations imposed on him a duty to cover his capital, he would have in coming to this eccentric post, opened the road to Blücher from Metz to Paris, leaving it helpless, where already a thunderstorm rumbled the great city dully which he alone was capable of standing up to and providing an unanswerable argument with covert menaces of royalist agents, with intelligence that the envoys of the Allies and the Bourbons  that they were fomenting unrest and opposition more and more pronounced, and that they were able to create and maintain.  Taking a stand at Dijon, leaving Paris at the point of not being able, after beating Schwarzenberg, to return before Blücher's appearance of columns of the Army of Silesia at Paris would have been to provide the armed coalition a starting off point that would not have failed to serve.  Without even trying to reconstruct what might have happened while in the councils of rulers, it is safe to say that Blücher, the living embodiment of the offensive in the Allied armies, would not have hesitated in the least to let Schwarzenberg stand alone against the whole weight of the efforts of the Emperor, when in the month of November 1813, the Prussian Field Marshal and his closest collaborators were already firmly convinced that there was only one way to surely and rapidly finish with Napoleon, and had unsuccessfully tried to convince the rulers of the necessity, of the certain results and the infallibility of an immediate march on Paris.  Despite the more formal orders, despite the failures that the Army of Bohemia might have experienced, at the risk of exposing himself in the end, to being left with just his own forces, with a disaster and with annihilation, Blücher would not have failed to take advantage of a circumstance he called for above all others.  Unfettered, taking a new momentum, he would not have turned left from the direct route and would have led forced marches on Paris that he would have found stripped of troops and unable to defend against his delivered blows.

Error of the Emperor on the size of the Allied armies.  --It must be recognized that the Emperor had made a miscalculation and that despite the difficult time and depletion of the country, he was deluding himself when he returned to Paris in November 1813, and still later, even despite the resistance he met from the Legislature, he persisted in believing that he could succeed in raising the whole country, to assemble in a few months a large army at the head of which he would stand up to the masses of the Allies and successfully defend on the battlefields the destinies of his dynasty and the integrity of the national territory.

It is not, as Clausewitz argued, because his past triumphs and conquests had made him blind and presumptuous and because he professed to value an opponent he had long known, a sovereign's contempt, that he did not call back Suchet's Army of Catalonia Suchet; instead of bringing back Prince Eugène from Italy, he ordered, instead to attempt an offensive against Bellegarde; that he left Maison to take the field in Belgium and he even sent troops into Savoy, near Lyon, on the Yonne. Policy demands that a Head of State cannot run away.  Not having given up the hope that, after a victory, of a settlement through diplomatic channels, the Emperor could sign an honorable peace. The great warrior who had paraded  victorious eagles through Europe, who once again held in his hands the destinies of the civilized world, could not affix his name to a treaty that would have disgraced France and the would have humbled it by reducing it to the rank of second-order power.  Finally, the Emperor Napoleon could not bring himself to make concessions as hard as they were useless and resign themselves to sacrifices as painful as they were sterile; since, even leaving aside the dynastic question, the humiliation of France, destroying the European balance, far from ensuring peace in the world, these would have given rise to new complications and led to short development of new disasters and new wars.  The Emperor Napoleon in the unfortunate situation of both campaigns, that were followed by entry of the Allies into France, could only seek to assemble forces strictly sufficient to deliver as soon as possible to the Allies an offensive battle, for that reason that he must above all bring about a decisive result.

The mistakes of the marshals and the necessity to which he had been brought to mass his troops in Châlons, because of the public sentiment in Paris, left him for that matter, when his opponents arrived on the banks of the Marne, only the possibility of delaying a battle that he had, instead, interest in making in the shortest possible time.  It was, indeed, to prevent a general concentration of the Allies and prevent them from being joined by the corps pushed on Saint-Dizier, Wassy and Joinville, ​​by those who came to Chaumont and the vicinity of Troyes, and those who like Wittgenstein and Yorck, arrived from the Saar and Moselle, or who could be recalled from Dijon, like those under the command of Crown Prince of Hesse-Homburg.

Reasons for the march of the Emperor on Saint-Dizier.  --When he arrived at Châlons, Napoleon found the Allied army in the process of massing on the Aube.  He immediately took the only rational and logical option: to move forth against the troops closest to him.  He still hoped to repair the faults of his lieutenants in falling on the corps of the Allies before they could complete their merger.  He wanted to crush what he would meet in Saint-Dizier and immediately stand against Blücher, who was still alone at Brienne.

It seemed, indeed, that if the Emperor began by marching on Saint-Dizier, obviously because it was planned in this way, there was one last chance to fall on the enemy columns in echelon along the Marne, from Chaumont and Langres.  With this glance which allowed him to see what has escaped other, with the rapid conception which was characteristic of his genius, with the immediate decision, but reasoned, however, that he had so many victories, discussed changing orders from the moment he becomes aware of Blücher's march to the Aube, that the Field Marshal proposed to move to Lesmont, and without losing a minute, he will move in addition to the direct route of Montier-en-Der.

These are all measures that were required to be taken right away because, until the moment of his arrival at Châlons (the correspondence is there to prove it), none of the marshals had thought to try to uncover the intentions and movements of the enemy.  And yet the Emperor has been criticized for his nervous irritability and outbursts, both highly natural and well explained in the presence of the apathy and indolence of his lieutenants, in the presence of  the gravity of the situation, in the presence of dynastic and military concerns under the weight of which any others would have died.

To take one definitive action, the Emperor was only lacking that exact knowledge of the situation and that information he was going to get in person.  His presence would stir up the patriotism of the people, the soldier's confidence in its leaders and imprint operations with that strong leadership, energetic and unique that they had been deprived of by the rivalries and disagreements marshals.

Situation at the Allied headquarters.  --Arrival of the Emperor of Russia.  --If the arrival of Napoleon at the army had put an end to the uncertainties, hesitations and shyness, the presence of the Emperor of Russia at Langres, where he was from the 22nd, was not sufficient to ensure for the Allied operations a cohesion and an order that it is always difficult to obtain in an army composed of multiple elements, to stifle the competition of all sorts, to curb the various currents which, occurring at any moment in the immediate circle of sovereigns inevitably influenced their determinations, and especially to invest the Generalissimo with real power, instead of merely nominal authority he had exercised before.  Alexander I was not the only one who had arrived at Langres.  The King of Prussia joined him on 25 January, and the Emperor of Austria also had followed less than twenty-four hours apart.  All these princes were dragging with them a countless staff of military and diplomats, Prince Volkonsky, Knesebeck, Nesselrode, Metternich, Stein, Hardenberg, Pozzo di Borgo and to represent England, Lord Castlereagh, Lord Aberdeen and Sir Charles Stewart.  It should not be surprising if minor resolutions gave rise to endless discussions, if the smallest projects submitted to this Aéropage, so widely diverse, demanded long deliberation, and if supporters of the offensive, Blücher and his staff, grumbled at any moment against the slowness of the headquarters, against the vague and terse instructions that reached them, mostly too late.  Since the arrival of the sovereigns first at Langres, then at Chaumont, hesitations were further enhanced and differences of opinion were more pronounced such that the primary plan of operation, which alone had been submitted to the sovereigns, and which alone had received their approval, did not anticipate the continuation of operations beyond the plateau of Langres.  Also, although we have in Chapter II, devoted several pages to the unique relationship of Allied generals, although we have in this chapter as in the following briefly indicated differences of opinion that separated Blücher and Schwarzenberg, it is important to the point where we are, to put more emphasis on this issue and seek to realize what was happening in the last days of January, at the headquarters of the Allies.

Disagreements between Blücher and Schwarzenberg. - The few things we have borrowed from the correspondence Gneisenau and Knesebeck, the passages we have excerpted from the letter sent by Chief of Staff of the Army of Silesia to Radetzky, then to the chief of staff of Schwarzenberg, have been sufficient to reveal differences of opinion between the two generals.  But they only reveal a corner of the tableaux and incompletely show the size of the rivalries and the intensity of the disagreements of the generals and the governments.

It was, as we have said, especially from the time when the Great Army had come up to Langres and to Chaumont, that the unpleasantness caused by essentially different interests of the Allies took on such proportions that it could have easily led to a genuine crisis.  Gneisenau's arguments had not changed the mind of Metternich.  He had, however, by dint of cleverness, succeeded in gaining acceptance over the peaceful ideas of the representatives of England, although the Tory Party, then the head of affairs and to which they belonged, would have gone even further in its desire than the Emperor Alexander himself and seemed thoroughly determined not to cease hostilities before they managed to put the Bourbons on the throne of France, or at least to cause the downfall of the Emperor.

As for Schwarzenberg, in the letter, from Langres, he wrote, on the 26th, to his wife, although he probably knew well that Radetzky had already communicated at the time the report to Gneisenau, gives a clear idea of his ​​the state of mind:  "We should make peace here.  That is my opinion.  Any movement forward towards Paris is an offense against the rules of military art.  Our Emperor, Stadion, Metternich and even Lord Castlereagh share this view; but the Emperor Alexander!  We have arrived at the moment when it comes to taking the most serious resolutions.  May God protect us in this crisis."

Knesebeck, too, continued to plead the cause of peace and pronounced at least in favor of negotiations and the status quo, but on the other hand, Blücher and Gneisenau remained steadfast in their ideas of an offensive of revenge. They had won their case with Müffling, who tried, too, to convince General Knesebeck of the necessity and urgency of an immediate march on Paris.

But neither Blücher nor Gneisenau had illusions about the results that could produce in their memoirs and their letters.  It was through their actions that they had thought to imprint a little more their decisions and in all the operations of the armies.  They had so little go wrong in their predictions that, in many councils held at Langres Knesebeck never stopped fighting their ideas and even tried to refute their arguments in a memorandum, approved by the King of Prussia, that he presented, 27 January, to the sovereigns, diplomats and generals, and in which he sought above all to counter the effect that had been produced on the mind of the Emperor of Russia by a new letter from the Chief of Staff of the Army of Silesia.

Role of the Emperor of Russia in the war councils.  --Despite all the interest of documents which, like the memoir of Knesebeck, conclude that the stop was purely and simply for the wonderful position of Langres, some curiosities in the information contained in the written statement of the situation by Schwarzenberg and introduced by General Langenau, Quartermaster General of the Army of Bohemia, at the council held at Langres, force us to dispute this and give an analysis.  Whatever short comings he may have had, whether he had brought them unnecessarily too far and whether he would be even more useless, the Emperor Alexander, confirmed in the ideas he had, moreover, never permanently waived by the news from Paris brought to him by his old tutor Laharpe, encouraged and stimulated by Stein and Pozzo di Borgo, was to, after stormy discussions which we trace, finally get the council to continue operations.  This is indeed what emerges from the letter written the 27th by Schwarzenberg to the princess which read:  "The circumstances are so serious! That's not the reason, but inconsistency and light guiding the footsteps of Alexander.  What he seeks is acclaim, it is the world with his prejudices.  Intelligence is useless here.  I think we'll go up to Paris, perhaps, even to Paris.  But shall we find peace or do we rush into an abyss?  For my part , I think it chaos."

The Emperor Alexander, meanwhile, had nevertheless been forced to make himself, by Metternich, Castlereagh and Schwarzenberg, go to the King of Prussia, who did not know whether to go along with the opinion of Alexander or follow advice of Knesebeck and Hardenberg, a concession which had cost him dearly.  He had to consent to the opening of negotiations and the meeting of the Congress of Châtillon, in order to obtain a promise that the Army of Bohemia would finally resume its march and be stopped at Troyes.  The idea this produced at headquarters was, however, to perform these movements with a method and such caution that, while advancing, they would still retain the ability to return at any moment to Chaumont and Langres.  Blücher's march was going to, as we noted in passing in Chapter III, undertake to undo the careful and ingenious fabrications which had been so carefully created at Langres.  As for disagreements, they nonetheless continued, and if the Emperor Alexander was very angry against Schwarzenberg, the Generalissimo (and these are the last items on which we will produce before resuming our work) did not give up despite the semblance of concessions that had been torn from him, his idea to stay in Chaumont and Langres.  Thus, on the 28th, writing to the Emperor of Austria, briefly outlining the operations of the last days, he explained the reasons why he had not felt obliged to march more quickly, and asked him formal orders allowing him to move forward beyond Chaumont.[3]

Letter of the Emperor of Austria to Prince Schwarzenberg.  --The Emperor's reply was not waited for long.  The very next day he wrote to Prince Schwarzenberg that we will reproduce and that seems to characterize better than
any other document could do, the nature of relations between Schwarzenberg and the Emperor Alexander, and define very clearly the situation of the minds at Grand Headquarters:

"Chaumont, 29 January 1814.  --Even after taking over Joinville and when the enemy has retreated on Vitry, we will not go to Bar-sur-Aube at Troyes until the enemy is at Châlons.  We must not forget that the enemy may, in southern France, move against the left, where the Allies have few people, and it is absolutely necessary to hold the road strongly so that, in case of failure, we could retire."

"It is therefore essential, not to advance, and take all possible measures for a retrograde movement."

"If, in spite of common sense, the Emperor of Russia declares himself in favor of moving forward, you will insist on the pre-meeting of a council of war, and you can be sure that I will support your ideas.[4]"

To end, with the facts, this examination of the internal situation of the Grand Headquarters, it will suffice to refer to the first marching orders given by Schwarzenberg to the  Army and Bohemia and the dispatch[5] in which he invited Blücher, that he informed of his probable arrival at Troyes from 2 to 6 February, to cover his rear and his communications by directing the bulk of the Army of Silesia on Vitry-le-François. One should look for the reasons of the confidential mission to Blücher, which Schwarzenberg commissioned for Colonel Baron Steigentesch, sent 27 January to the headquarters of Field Marshal.  The colonel was ordered to explain verbally to Blücher the reasons which prevented the Great Army from reaching Troyes before 6 February, to convince him to slow his movements accordingly and get him to not go beyond Vitry.  One could then compare these documents with the movement to the Aube, performed by the Field-Marshal, and with the instructions he had left to Yorck.  It would then show in their full importance and in their extent of the ideas how essentially different the heads of two large masses of Allies were; it would be easy to understand that the hatred, the passion and the energy of Blücher had, by force of circumstances and despite the letter of the Emperor of Austria, to triumph over delays calculated by political motives, over reasoned prudence of Schwarzenberg, causing the events that the Generalissimo wanted to avoid and brought the first major battles, that he particularly cared not to deliver at that time for fear of a disaster.

Moreover, and what are the last words we say about this, if Blücher persisted against all odds in his plans, Prince Schwarzenberg did not let himself become converted, and this is what he wrote in a confidential letter to his own, the 29th, on the return of Colonel Baron Steigentesch and after having read a long memorandum of Gneisenau reported by that officer, "Blücher and Gneisenau more than he, --for the good old man has lent his name,  --push with a rage so childish to Paris, that they are trampling all rules of warfare.  Without deigning to cover the main road from Châlons to Nancy with a corps of respectable size, they run like crazy to Brienne.  Without concern for their flanks and their backs, they just throw fine parties at the Palais Royal.  Is not that something unfortunate at such a grave moment?"

Such was the open sentiment at Allied headquarters in Chaumont and in particular those of the Generalissimo during the days preceding and following the arrival of the Emperor at Châlons, and which a few days would be sufficient to completely change his ideas soon as he became aware of the situation, following the defeat of Lanskoy at Saint-Dizier and Blücher at Brienne. And whose frustrations, however, did not ease the difficulties of the Emperor at Châlons.

Opinion of the Emperor on the situation.  - Letter to Belliard.  --If one goes through the letter that he wrote from Paris to Belliard, 36 hours or more before starting, you will see that he would find a situation quite different from that on which he thought he could count on:

"Paris, 23 January 1814.[6]--... Send to the assembly of General Lefebvre to be told that the cavalry is coming after him to facilitate his march.  My intention is to start tomorrow night and be at noon on the 25th at Vitry where General Lefebvre-Desnouettes arrives at the same time .... I intend to take the offensive on the 26th.  I guess the Duke of Bellune to be holding on at Ligny or Saint-Dizier, the Prince of the Moskowa with the 1st and 2nd divisions of the Young Guard is nearby, and General Gérard is at Brienne and the Duke of Trévise at Bar-sur-Aube.  I will gather all these forces and fall on the first corps of the enemy in range.  Endeavor that on my arrival at Châlons and Vitry, I find information so I will know where the enemy infantry are, so I can combine my movements and fall on them.  In general, the Duke of Raguse must be prepared to take back the Meuse...Keep secret the news of my arrival so on my arrival you can  tell me what happens at Soissons and if there is only a few battalions and guns."

But Mortier had been forced back to Troyes, and Victor had long since left Ligny and Saint-Dizier which he had lost by his own fault.  Having about the same numbers, they were not nearly as significant as those which the Emperor thought they had based his dispatch of 23 January to the Chief of Staff,[7] in which he evaluated the total force of troops stationed from the Marne to the Aube to be 80,000 men with 300 cannons.  In reality he was going to use only those corps posted on the side of Vitry, namely:  the 2nd Corps (Victor) about 10,000 men, the 6th (Marmont) 9,000,  the Guard (under the command of Ney and Oudinot), slightly more than 14,000 men, the 1st Cavalry Corps (Doumerc) 3,000 horses, the 5th Cavalry Corps (Milhaud) nearly 5,000 horses, or, in all, from 41,000 to 42,000 men.[8]  It is indeed impossible to include among the troops at the disposal of the Emperor, the 20,000 men that Mortier had with him on the side of Troyes at Vendeuvre-sur-Barse since the arrival of reinforcements from Paris.  It is the same for the 10,000 men with whom Macdonald was still marching on Châlons from Namur and with whom he had just arrived with pain at the level of Verdun, and the 2,800 men entrusted to General Allix, responsible for operations on the side of Sens and Auxerre.

When he arrived at Châlons, the Emperor had before him the Army of Silesia, or rather, Olsufiev at Joinville, Lanskoy at Saint-Dizier, and Sacken near Vitry, having 27,000 to 28,000 men, against whom he could immediately oppose with Victor, Marmont and Ney, that is to say a number of men almost equal.  Indeed, the dispositions of Blücher for the marches of 22 to 30 January, assuming that nothing might interfere with their performance, tended to have by the 30th, the left wing, that is to say the bulk of his army, at Arcis-sur-Aube. The Field Marshal wanted to stay ahead of the Great Army that he expected to see arrive at Troyes at the time.  His right wing under Yorck, was in his mind and according to his calculations on that day at the level of Saint-Dizier.  But the Emperor had the advantage over Blücher of being able to quickly assemble his three corps at Vitry and stand with them in Saint-Dizier, where he still hoped to debouch before him--at least that was the plan that he thought upon before leaving Paris--to fall on the columns of Schwarzenberg in echelon to Langres.

If we turn the pages we have devoted to examining the situation of spirits at the headquarters of the Allies, we cannot help acknowledging that there was little good to the plan for the Emperor to succeed. And if Napoleon was forced to amend the plan which he had given preference to, it could at least be agreed upon that he executed it at a speed comparable to that, 18 years before, earned him his first victories.

Projects of Napoleon soon after his arrival at Châlons.  --Orders of movement on Saint-Dizier.  --Just arrived at Châlons, after listening to the communications of the Chief of Staff and as it was still impossible to disentangle the truth, he decided, at 9 o'clock in the morning, to mass his three corps at Vitry and attack, the 27th, Saint-Dizier. "My intention," he wrote to Berthier[9], "is to attack tomorrow (the 27th).  Therefore, I give the order[10] to General Ricard to move on Vitry.  Recommend to the Duke of Raguse to press the execution of this movement.  I have ordered General Lefebvre and division Ricard to head en route for Vitry today...Reconnoiter the field and take a military position in front of Vitry, the closest possible if we are to be in Saint-Dizier, so that we can always fall back on Châlons or cross the Marne at Vitry..."

"I ordered the Duke of Trévise and General Gérard to move on Vitry."

"We must have information on what the enemy has in Saint-Dizier, who commands them, and what their numbers are.  If there are only 25,000 to 30,000 men, we can beat them, and if we succeed in this operation, it will change the whole state of affairs.  If, instead, they were left to concentrate, there will be no more chances for us. Give the order to the Duke of Bellune to move with his whole corps to the military position as close as possible to Saint-Dizier, and we will curl up immediately behind him to attack tomorrow morning."

Making these orders, the Emperor had nothing to do at Châlons, where he left the Duke of Valmy with some duoniers and some detachments necessary to guard the park of the army, going on to Vitry where he established his headquarters, the 26th in the morning and where he thought he would be able to collect the reports and the information needed to complete the orders he had given and that the marshals were already in the process of executing.

Blücher continues his march towards the Aube.  --Positions of the Army of Silesia.  --While the Emperor, halting the retreat of his marshals, vigorously moved his columns back forward, Blücher, vaguely informed of the arrival of Napoleon to the army, had, on the other hand, only became aware of the retreat of Mortier from Bar-sur-Aube to Troyes.  The Field Marshal knowing exactly the positions held overnight by the French corps around Vitry, convinced that the marshals would not be able to unite, had persisted in his resolution and decided to continue his march towards the Aube.  He hoped, in conjunction with the Great Army of Bohemia, to shove away the enemy corps that stood in his way to Paris, to seize this city, and put an end to the war in a short time.  Leaving the positions he held on the 25th with this purpose, from Saint-Dizier to Joinville, he moved his headquarters to Dommartin and sent the corps of Olsufiev to Doulevant and to Dommartin, the Levin division (from the corps of Sacken) to Soulaines-Dhuys and the corps of Prince Scherbatov to Giffaumont-Champaubert.  This last corps left the high road to Vitry to execute this movement, and turned to the left by a side road.  Biron's cavalry had remained during the day at the disposal of Prince Scherbatov but in the evening of 26th the cavalry was replaced by order of Lieutenant-General Vasilchikov under the command of General Lanskoy and Scherbatov received in exchange the Hussars of White Russia, who formed the vanguard from the 27th.[11]  As for Lanskoy, he remained in Saint-Dizier with the troops he had under his command during the march to the Marne, both to monitor the road from Châlons by Vitry, and await Yorck, who's vanguard, Blücher continued to think would appear on the 28th.

But Yorck[12] only received in the evening of the 26th at Pont-à-Mousson, the letter Blücher had written him on the 25th from Gondrecourt and we discussed in Chapter III.  His troops occupied in the evening of the 26th the following positions: the vanguard, under Prince William of Prussia, was posted from Moulins just up to Thiaucourt, and Colonel Count Henckel,[13] who formed the tip of advanced-guard of the  Ist Corps, whose main body had not gone that far from Troyon, waited still on 26th, very late in the evening, it is true, but with nothing but his patrol leader, Rupt-devant-Saint-Mihiel.  The reserve cavalry of General von Jürgass was, instead, remaining in Fresnes, while the 1st Brigade (Pirch II) came to Marly, and 2nd (von Warburg), Pont-à-Mousson.[14]  It was therefore almost impossible to cross the Meuse at Saint-Mihiel before the 28th , the day Blücher had thought to be at Brienne.

Positions of the Army of Bohemia.  --The Army of Bohemia[15], thanks to the calculated  and learned slowness with which the 117,000 men, which consisted of troops marching to the Aube, had been brought forward, was still far behind the positions occupied by Blücher.  At the extreme right, the cavalry Pahlen (VIth Corps) was alone at the level of the head of the columns of Blücher, and arrived the 26th from Donjeux at Cirey-le-Château (now Cirey-sur-Blaise).  Wittgenstein himself was at Nancy, and as his columns, after marching slowly in recent days by Nancy and Toul, had reached near Vaucouleurs; it was from Nancy that the commander of the VIth Corps sent the 26th to the Generalissimo the following report.[16]  It follows from this piece that if Wittgenstein was somewhat aware of the current movements of Blücher, he was hardly informed about those of Wrede, his immediate neighbor. Complying, however, with the orders of the Generalissimo, he considered it useless to move himself to the front, to press the advance with those of his troops under the command of Prince Gorchakov, but remained behind from the moment he had crossed the Rhine.

"General Wittgenstein to Prince Schwarzenberg.  --Nancy, 26 January 1814.  --According to some news that reached me at the moment, Field-Marshal Blücher, instead of standing on his position between Commercy and Vaucouleurs, continued his march by Joinville, Dommartin and Brienne to Arcis, where he thinks to be the 30th."

"I subsequently prescribed to the General Count Pahlen to stay in communication with him and move on Troyes by Vignory and Bar.  If this general officer meets on that side the cavalry of General Count Wrede, he is ordered to move more to the right."

"I will be tomorrow at Toul, the 28th at Houdelaincourt, the 29th at Joinville, the 30th at  Romilly-sur-Seine and the 31st in  Brienne, where I will make arrangements in accordance to my circumstances, if Your Highness, has not by then sent me new orders."

"Prince Gorchakov, who is in Brumath with reserves, will arrive on 10 February at Brienne."

To the left of Wittgenstein, Wrede, with his Austro-Bavarians, remained along the Rognon and ranged from Andelot up to about Clefmont.

In the center, Gyulay with the IIIrd Corps, was still at Bar-sur-Aube.  He had pushed with his flying corps, established at Bar-sur-Seine, a reconnaissance that, towards Troyes, found the French outposts established at Saint-Parres-lès-Vaudes.  The outposts of Gyulay on the road of Vendeuvre-sur-Barse, were in view of Magny-Fouchard (Le Magny), covered by an overflowing creek and were not even thinking of repairing the bridge which the French had cut in their retreat, as the small French posts which were still in Magny-Fouchard the 25th, had just been reinforced by the arrival the 26th by infantry and cavalry.  The day, on this side, was passed with maneuvers, and the heads of the columns of the IIIrd Corps were content to appear at La Maison-des-Champs while the Cossacks were heading to Bar-sur-Seine through Beurey.

In fact in reports, Gyulay[17] simply stated that the headquarters of Mortier was still on the night of 25th to 26th at Vendeuvre, that 1,500 French troops had withdrawn from Troyes on Brienne, finally Napoleon, left on the 20th (?) from Paris to Châlons, and had to throw himself on Blücher with 30,000 men.  He pointed once again to the immobility of Platoff to Schwarzenberg:  "The Count Ataman Platoff[18] is still here (at Bar-sur-Aube).  He must, it seems, go to Bar-sur-Seine, that my troops have occupied for four days."

Behind the IIIrd Corps, the Crown Prince of Württemberg was in the second line at Colombey-les-Deux-Églises, before the Russian and Prussian reserves of Barclay de Tolly, who continued to take a staggered position between Chaumont and Langres.

The Feldzeugmeister Colloredo with his Ist Corps, composed now, since he had to leave before Auxonne the division of Wimpffen, of the light division of Ignatius Hardegg, of the divisions of Wied-Runkel and Bianchi, of the grenadier division of Hohenlohe-Bartenstein, of the cuirassier division of Count Nostitz and 2nd Light Division (Prince Maurice Liechtenstein), formed a special column whose mission was to cover the left of the Great Army and for communications with the army of Crown Prince of Hesse-Homburg , posted in Dijon and responsible for directing military operations in the valleys of the Saône and the Rhône.

The troops of Colloredo were still quite far behind, as the head of only one column had reached Châtillon and its tail was still between Saint-Seine and Dijon.  Colloredo himself was about halfway between Châtillon and Saint-Seine at Baigneux-les-Juifs.  He was flanked on his left by Count Ignatius Hardegg, who was to move next from Alise-Sainte-Reine to Montbard, where he would find General de Vaux.  The latter, having with him only 400 men, left  Flavigny on the 25th, at the approach of the Austrian troops.[19] Seeing that there was virtually no one before Count Hardegg, Colloredo[20], ordered the Brigade of Salms, he had posted at Lucenay-le-Duc and Bussy-le-Grand in the event that Hardegg would have required support, to retake on the 27th the great road from Châtillon.

The light division of the Prince Maurice Liechtenstein[21] was at Ampilly, preceded by the flying corps of Lieutenant-Colonel Count Thurn, who had pushed up to Bar-sur-Seine by the 24th, and by the party of Major Prince Auersperg which came on 26th, with two squadrons of light horse from Rosenberg to Mussy l'Évêque (now Mussy-sur-Seine). Although Liechtenstein announced there was no sign of enemy troops on the side of Châtillon and communicated to Colloredo reports according to which the French had only a few people at Troyes, and although Bar-sur-Seine was already in the hands of Thurn, Colloredo did not believe in the need to move an infantry brigade and division of cuirassiers in support of the Light Division.  One would be surprised though, that on arriving at Baigneux-les-Juifs the 26th, he writes to Schwarzenberg that the only 29th he would be on the road near Châtillon with his main column n ready to move forward.  Colloredo, who would rub shoulders during the march by Hardegg in the direction of Tonnerre, will take two full days to travel a little over 30 kilometers.


[1] MARMONT, Mémoires.

[2] A. G., Maxims of Napoleon, p. 11.

[3] Schwarzenberg to the Emperor of Austria, Langres, 28 January. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., I, 540.)

[4] Emperor of Austria to Schwarzenberg, Chaumont, 29 January. (Ibid.,  I, ad. 672.)

[5] Schwarzenberg to Blücher, Langres, 21 January. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., I, 492.)

[6] Correspondence, no. 21.131.

[7] Ibid., no. 21, 127.

[8] No sooner had he arrived, than Napoleon made some changes to this order of battle.  He placed General Gérard at the head of the division Dufour (1st Division of the Reserve of Paris, that was with Mortier), the brigade of cavalry of General Piquet and the division of Ricard, that the troops of Macdonald relieved at Les Islettes.  He confided to Marshal Ney the Young Guard divisions of Decouz and Meunier, which formed the reserve of the Guard; to Marshal Oudinot the Rottembourg division and the cavalry of Lefebvre-Desnouettes.  General Gérard, who left Lesmont the 26th in the afternoon, was obliged to go to Vitry-le-François, went by way of Arcis-sur-Aube because the direct route by Rosnay-l'Hôpital was impracticable for artillery.  It is worth recalling that on the 25th, 150 Cossacks had occupied Brienne, and the 26th reconnoitered the positions of Gérard at Lesmont.  Gérard arrived on the 28th at Vitry, and was directed from there, the 30th on Dienville to secure possession of the bridge

[9] Napoleon to Berthier, Châlons, 26 January, 9 o'clock in the morning. (Correspondance, no. 21, 135.)

[10] "Order.  --Châlons-sur-Marne, 26 January 1814, 9:45 in the morning."

"The Emperor orders that the Duke of Bellune immediately take, the position closest to Saint-Dizier, astride the road from Saint-Dizier to Vitry, supporting his right to the Marne, near his outposts.  The Duke of Raguse is to take position a half-league or a league behind the Duke of Bellune, straddling the main road.  The Prince of the Moskowa, with the 1st and the 2nd Division of the Young Guard, will take position a half-league or a league behind the Duke of Raguse, straddling the road.  General Lefebvre, with his cavalry and the division of General Rottembourg, will take position in front of Vitry and behind the Prince of the Moskowa, straddling the road.  The Imperial Headquarters will be this evening at a village behind the Duke of Bellune ..."

"All unnecessary baggage must be returned between Vitry and Châlons ... The artillery must park with the brigades in "maneuver of war" ... We will work to put the position of Vitry in a ready state ... We will reconnoiter the river of the Ornain; ensure the road bridge, the bridge of Vitry-le-Brûlé, and we will build a third, this position to be the position of retirement." (Correspondence of Napoleon, no. 21,136.)

Macdonald, meanwhile, was ordered to march from Châlons and Verdun to occupy Les Islettes.  Finally, the Emperor had also sent, the day before, 26 January, the following order by Belliard to General Ricard, at that time still at Sainte-Menehould:

"The Emperor commands that you approach Vitry with your division.  Therefore, you must leave Les Islettes from the receipt of my letter and move yourself on Bussy-le-Repos and La Motte-Hériton, taking the branch roads from Bar-le-Duc to Reims and Châlons, and from Vitry to Sainte-Menehould , taking care to scout your right and push the parties to Bar-le-Duc and Revigny-sur-Ornain and then on Sermaize-les-Bains. I pray you, General, to inform us of your departure from Sainte-Menehould and send an officer to the headquarters in Vitry as soon as arriving at your new position. (Correspondance of Belliard.  --Depot of the War.)

General Ricard arrived at Bassuet the 27th, after a very difficult march, in passing Sainte-Menehould, Elize, Dampierre-le-Château, Dommartin-sur-Yèvre.  From Bassuet, he directed 4 battalions with cavalry to Lisse, Saint-Quentin and Saint-Lumier.  Ney sent the same day the divisions of Decouz and Meunier to take positions, the 1st at Oreomte and, the 2nd, at Farémont and Thiéblemont, in the second line of Marmont posted at Heiltz-le-Huttier.

[11] Journal of Operations Lieutenant General Prince Scherbatov:

It is wrong that Plotho and Damitz attribute some part in the operations of Lieutenant General Vasilchikov from 23 to 26 January.  This general officer did not march with the vanguard of General Lanskoy, nor with the first column of Sacken, that of Lieutenant General Prince Scherbatov, but with the second.

[12] It is impossible not to note in passing the conduct of General von Yorck, indignant at the atrocities committed by the Cossacks of Platoff, who issued through an order of the day, that he wrote at the time when his corps began its movement, that his brigadier generals and officers were responsible for violence that their soldiers would engage in. He charged, in that order, the officers to explain to their men that it was through their discipline that they would manage to win people to the cause they defended, and absolutely forbade the requisition of any type. 

(DROYSEN, Das Leben von Feldmarschall Grafen York von Wartenburg, t. II, p. 278.)

[13] HENCKEL VON DONNERSMARCK., Erinnerungen zu meinem Leben, p. 261.

[14] Major von Bilberstein blockaded at that time Saarlouis with 4 squadrons of Landwehr.  Major General von Röder invested, with the cavalry of the IInd Corps (Kleist) Luxembourg and Thionville.  The vanguard of the IInd Corps, with General-Lieutenant von Zieten was in Wittlich; the 10th Brigade (General von Pirch I) at Kaisersesch; the 12th Brigade (Prince Augustus of Prussia) had arrived a half-way between Kirchberg and Thalfang.  General Borozdin (Langeron Corps and cavalry corps of Lieutenant-General Baron Korff), which would should be soon reinforced by General Yuzefovich with 2 battalions, 5 squadrons and a Cossack regiment, watched Metz with 14 squadrons, and General Kaptsevich, with the 10th Russian Corps (from the corps of Langeron, still held before Mainz), left the Rhine on 17 January, heading to Nancy.

[15] VIth Corps (Wittgenstein); Vth Corps (Wrede); IVth Corps (Crown Prince of Württemberg); IIIrd Corps (Gyulay); Ist Corps (column of Count Colloredo); Russian and Prussian reserves.

[16] Wittgenstein to Schwarzenberg, Nancy, 26 January. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., I. 592.)

[17] Gyulay to Schwarzenberg, Bar-sur-Aube, 26 January. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., I, 587.)

[18] Platoff and his men committed such atrocities that Müffling could not help write the date the 25th of January: "The people of Platoff behave in a disgraceful manner and compromise our affairs."

[19] Hardegg in his report from Sainte-Reine, 26 January 1814 (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., I, 607 a.), asked Colloredo to send money that he needed to obtain information for his reports. He informed the Feldzeugmeister in addition that the crossing road marked on the map and leading from Sainte-Reine to Montbard, was very bad to Montbard, barely passable for light artillery and should be used only in extreme emergencies.  He announced also that there was at that time at Auxerre about 200 conscripts and 200 cavalry.

[20] Colloredo to Schwarzenberg, Baigneux-les-Juifs, 26 and 27 January (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., I, 586, and I, 607), and Prince Maurice Liechtenstein to Colloredo, Ampilly, 26 January. (Ibid., I, 586, a.)

[21] Liechtenstein ends his dispatch to Colloredo from Ampilly saying:  "In accordance with the orders I received, I will, at Châtillon, unite with me the troops of the Crown Prince of Württemberg, whose location I do not know.  I do not think the IVth Corps is at Joinville. If Your Excellency knows something about it, I'd be very grateful if he would kindly inform me."  Is not it curious that, although it would have produced no major event on this side, and although the IVth Corps had made no movement at that time, one did not consider to tell a general, charged with connecting with this corps, at least the approximate the direction in which he had a chance to communicate with him?


Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2011

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