Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns

The Campaign of 1814: Chapter Six Part V

By: Maurice Weil

Translated by: Greg Gorsuch


(after the Imperial and Royal War Archives at Vienna)





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

Positions of the VIth Corps.  --Before discussing more important issues, and to finish with a few movements that the advanced troops of the VIth Corps executed in the rest of the day, suffice it to say that towards the evening, one recalled from Wassy the 2nd Russian infantry brigade which had gone beyond that city and the cavalry of General Rüdinger was directed on Giffaumont to oversee the country between the Voire and the Marne.

Yorck in turn, to comply with his orders, had resigned himself to recalling Major von Schierstädt and resending  Major von Grävenitz, of the Mecklenburg Hussars, who, pursuing the enemy since the day before had picked up beyond Éclaron some baggage carts and some wagons loaded with ammunition, luggage and supplies.

Wrede takes it upon himself to head towards Nomécourt by Soulaines.  --"Arriving in Nomécourt at 9 o'clock in the morning (as expressed by the Prince of Thurn and Taxis in his Journal[1]), Wrede learn that the vanguard of the VIth Corps had occupied Wassy and there only was, so to speak, a lot of the enemy beside Saint-Dizier."  So it was known that Napoleon was now moving with the bulk of his forces against Blücher and he concluded that to help the Field Marshal, it was best or the Vth Corps to march in the same direction followed by the French.

Wrede was convinced that Wittgenstein wanted to operate in concert with him; but the general insisted on staying at Wassy, ​​forcing Wrede to separate from the VIth Corps and head left towards Dommartin-le-Saint-Père.

The Bavarian advanced guard discovered the enemy camp near Soulaines[2] and was obliged to retire into the woods.  Wrede moved to Doulevant and "it was by chance he learned, quite late in the evening, with his cavalry that he had pushed forward, that he was connected and in communication with the IVth Corps, Crown Prince of Württemberg."[3]

The story of Prince Taxis summarizes the situation perfectly.  But the resolution taken by Wrede at this time is too serious and it would have too much influence on the events of the day to make it possible to be content with this summary, as clear and precise as it is, without considering the situation in detail with the help of official documents that exist in the Imperial and Royal Archives of the War in Vienna.

Educated in the school of Napoleon under whom he had fought, Wrede had been able to learn from the master.  He was not afraid of responsibility and joined it with a natural talent, the ability to grasp things by a quick look, two qualities rare among the Allied generals: initiative and decision.  The news he had received at Nomécourt had sufficed to prove that Wittgenstein did not need him, there was nothing more to do on the side of Wassy for two corps further supported by that of Yorck.  The result was that, whereas the headquarters still believed him between Montier-en-Der and Wassy, ​​while there was resistance on the appropriate destination to give him, while Schwarzenberg proposed in the provisions that he wrote in the afternoon of the 31st and that Wrede had not yet been received, to bring him to Montier-en-Der, the Bavarian general had already borne by the shortest route to the French left wing.  Doulevant reached, he wrote the 31st in the afternoon to Schwarzenberg the curious letter that we will recite:[4]

Wrede's letter to Schwarzenberg.  --"General Wittgenstein just informed me today when I arrived in Nomécourt, that  he had taken Wassy during the night."

"So he did not need me anymore."

"Consequently I decided to change the directions I had assigned to all my columns, and therefore General of Cavalry Baron Frimont is with the bulk of his corps at Dommartin-le-Franc and Dommartin-le-Saint-Père, Lieutenant Field Marshal Count Antoine Hardegg with the vanguard of Frimont at Sommevoire, from where he sent large parties in the direction of Montier-en-Der.  General of Division Lamotte has one of his brigades at Blumeray and the other at Nully: is vanguard is at Trémilly pushing towards Soulaines, and to cover his left he has also occupied Thil.  General of Division Count  Rechberg supports the right of his division at Doulevant where I put my headquarters, and his left is at Beurville where it will connect with the right wing of the IVth Corps."

"The enemy who was here yesterday, was moved by Blumeray, Nully and Soulaines on Brienne which leads to a very good road passable for artillery.  The artillery can also follow equally well from Wassy by Voillecomte (Voille-le-Comte) a good road to Montier-en-Der."

"I think if Your Highness is determined to attack the enemy at Brienne, I will march by Blumeray and Soulaines, and Wittgenstein, from Wassy to Montier-en-Der.  We both have to accelerate our march.  As for Field Marshal Blücher, he should wait to push forward of Dienville, until I arrived at around Dienville, while Wittgenstein hastens his movements so as to achieve Maizières at the same time.  If General Yorck arrived today up to about Wassy, he will be able to seriously worry, by Huiron, Corbeil and Donnemont, the retreat of the enemy, although it is not, in any case, possible to bring to this point any other than his advanced guard."

"If, as seems likely, the enemy crosses the Aube at Brienne or Lesmont to head to Troyes, Yorck might, as Feldzeugmeister Colloredo should probably be on the side of Vendeuvre, march on Arcis, following that the  other columns of the right wing would follow the enemy."

"Without exposing ourselves to starvation, we are unable to remain on our current positions. I think we must look to gain ground as quickly as possible and look forward with impatience to your Highness making a decision."

"If, which is possible, the enemy has confined itself yesterday to display a simple demonstration in front of the Field-Marshal Blücher and he defiled its main body by Lesmont on Troyes, we will only have to accelerate our movements more."

A few hours later, during the time that elapsed between the departure of the response of Schwarzenberg and his arrival at the headquarters of the Vth Corps at Doulevant, Wrede, more convinced than ever of the seriousness of the situation and the urgency of marching his troops in a direction that allowed them to take part in the coming struggle, on getting the announcement of the evacuation of Soulaines the evening of 31st, sent a second dispatch to Schwarzenberg in which he informed him "that he would move right on Brienne to attack the enemy wherever he meets them."

Response and new orders from Schwarzenberg.  --Schwarzenberg responded to the first of the two dispatches of Wrede with a promptness that it is especially important to note, constitutes an exception to his ordinary processes.

The answer had to have been sent to Chaumont in the evening of 31st, since mention is made of the information sent by Blücher from Arsonval in the morning, and ran as follows:

"Headquarters, Chaumont.  --31 January 1814.  --The dispatch that Your Excellency sent to me from Doulevant the 31st of this month, caused me great joy, even more so, as you have precisely foreseen my desires."[5]

"Field-Marshal Blücher told me this morning at 10 o'clock that the enemy moved against him.  I receive at this moment the news which, though not official, however, appears worthy of believing, saying this move afterwards appears to have been a simple reconnaissance and as a result of which the enemy retreated.  I repeat however that the information in question is not quite official.  I therefore stand by the destination I gave you for this reason, with this difference, however, that you take in leaving your current position, the direct route of Brienne by Blumeray and Soulaines and you simply send a column of substantial size on Montier-en-Der, given that Wittgenstein cannot take this path.  This general, continues in effect, to be designated to operate against Vitry together with General Yorck, with whom he joins in Saint-Dizier."

"I invite Your Excellency to let me know tomorrow at Bar-sur-Aube if and what time your troops will be able to arrive at Brienne without imposing too many hardships."

From the foregoing, it follows therefore that it is quite clear that it is to Wrede alone one must attribute the merit of a movement that was to have such valuable effects for the Allies.  It was confined to headquarters to accept the fait accompli and to exploit it, without even thinking fit in the dispatch which we have transcribed, to mention the general commanding the Vth Corps, which was essential, however, inasmuch as he was going to his left to know the direction to his neighbor, the IVth Corps.

Movement of Yorck towards Vitry.  --We have seen that the advanced guard cavalry of the Ist Corps arrived with General Katzler at Wassy on the morning of the 31st.  Until noon Yorck waited in vain for an order which, without danger, given the still considerable distance at which the troops of Macdonald were, would have directed that he push straight forward from Wassy and Montier-en-Der, as his riders had already passed in the company of the Cossacks of Ilovaysky XII.  At about 2 o'clock in the afternoon, having received no instructions, either from Blücher or Schwarzenberg, Yorck, could not do otherwise than comply with the dispositions that he had in hand, recalling the cavalry that he had pushed on the road to Brienne.  He ordered at the same time[6] Pirch II, who started the same day with Colonel Henckel who served as a vanguard for the movement on Vitry, that the main body of the Ist Corps would execute the next day, after the Allies had secured a strong position, to deprive Macdonald of his direct communications with the French army and take from the Emperor a point  that he said in his letter of 31 January to Clarke, "it is for us of utmost importance to have and hold."[7]

The 31st of January, at 9 o'clock at night, the cavalry of General Katzler could not, as it happened, reach Humbécourt, Éclaron and Valcourt, while the brigade of General von Pirch II stopped around 7 o'clock at night at Thiéblemont, covered in front by the flying corps of Colonel Count Henckel, established at  Farémont.  The flooding produced by the thaw of the Saulx and the poor condition of roads had prevented this officer to move in front of Sermaize by the roads that run along the Saulx and forced him to use the way from Vitry.  The few parties that he had pushed ahead of Vauclerc, had been met on that side by a few companies of infantry and a few squadrons who had retreated almost immediately on Vitry, which was estimated at that time, to be the garrison of about 1500 men and who still manned the ramparts with only a few pieces.

Henckel had left at Buisson a squadron to monitor the crossings of the Ornain near Vitry-le-Brûlé.[8]

Finally, a small detachment under the command of Major von Kracht, covered the left of the Pirch Brigade, on the side of the Marne, at Norrois.

The news that Yorck received a few days from patrols sent from near Châlons, and towards the Argonne, had reported the increasing vigorous hostility of the people.  It had erupted as a result of his proclamation[9] in Saint-Dizier, in which he threatened the severest penalties for anyone caught with arms in hand, and ordered his officers to take extra precaution and be especially vigilant as he was already aware at that time of the march of Macdonald and the imminent arrival of the Marshal at Châlons.

We said earlier that the Brayer Division, of Macdonald's corps had, in debouching from Sedan, come up against the cavalry of Yuzefovich near Mouzon who preceded, by afar distance it is true, the corps of General Count Saint-Priest on the way to the Ardennes and towns of the Moselle.  General Brayer, following the encounter, thought it was better to move to the right, on Launois-sur-Vence, and thence to Rethel.  Macdonald sent an order to move by Vouziers and Autry on Sainte-Menehould, where that division should make on the 30th and take position at Les Islettes.  General Molitor would follow the same route later.  Finally, Sebastiani and the Duke of Padoue, received the 29th in the morning, the order to arrive at Sainte-Menehould the 31st at the latest.

A few hours later on the day of the 29th, the Duke of Tarente changed his orders, after receiving at Rethel, at 3 o'clock in the afternoon, the dispatch from the Chief of Staff sent from Saint-Dizier, the 28th at 9 o'clock in the morning[10], and ordering his various columns, except those of Sebastiani and the Duke of Padoue, who could not get there on 1 February, to be collected at Châlons-sur-Marne 31 January, taking Vouziers by Suippes. It is nonetheless reasonable to ask why, instead of losing three days after the skirmish at Mouzon, the Duke of Tarente did not try to force his way by Mouzon, to drive before him the Russian cavalry, and did not profit from this lost time to concentrate his small army when there was no pressure to march in echelon.

It seems, however, that discipline was relaxed in a deplorable manner during the continual marches that the troops of Macdonald executed during the preceding month.  The complaints that the old Marshal Kellermann[11] addressed about the looting of a convoy, give a fairly sad picture of the state of this little army.

Arriving on the 31st at Châlons, as he had announced to the Chief of Staff, after going himself by Reims, Macdonald immediately pushed the cavalry of Exelmans on the road of Vitry, of Bar-le-Duc and of Sainte-Menehould up to Saint-Germain-la-Ville, Vésigneul-sur-Marne, Marson and Notre-Dame-de-l'Épine, to scout all that part of the right bank of the Marne.  He momentarily left generals Molitor and Brayer in the cantonments their divisions were to occupy.

These movements of cavalry were, indeed, all the more necessary as the Emperor began to have serious concerns for Vitry and from Brienne, 31 January, at 8 o'clock in the morning, had the Chief of Staff instruct the Marshal to prescribe marching to the rescue of Vitry, if necessary.

Position of the IIIrd and IVth Corps and of Barclay.  --Movement of Colloredo on Bar-sur-Seine. - Throughout the morning of 31st, the IIIrd and IVth Corps remained almost motionless.  The Württembergers continued to occupy, behind the right of Sacken, Maisons and Fresnay.  Gyulay had approached from the left of Blücher, leaving Bar-sur-Aube to go to Arsonval and Bossancourt, while Barclay de Tolly transferred his headquarters from Chaumont to Colombey-les-Deux-Églises and the reserves and the Russian and Prussian guards, under his immediate command, massed between Colombey and Bar-sur-Aube, where the 2nd and 3rd Cuirassier Divisions had already arrived later in the day.

On the left, Colloredo had left the 2nd Light Division (Prince Maurice Liechtenstein) at Fouchères, the division of Count Ignatius Hardegg at Chaource and had arrived with part of his column in Bar-sur-Seine.  His grenadiers occupied Ville-sur-Arce and Buxières-sur-Arce.  Bianchi was a little further back in Polisy, Neuville-sur-Seine and Courteron; but Nostitz with his cuirassiers was still only at Les Riceys.  The Feldzeugmeister occupied these points when he received the second order of the 31st, by which Schwarzenberg required him "to immediately move on Vendeuvre, so from there, to take action against the enemy's right."

Thurn gives notice of the departure of Mortier from Troyes for Arcis.  --Unsuccessful attacks of Platoff on Sens.  --Finally, before considering the dispositions that Schwarzenberg would take for battle the next day, we still need to talk of the Lieutenant-colonel Thurn, who operated on the left of Colloredo.  The Lieutenant-colonel, was headed in this direction, when he learned in Saint-Phal the 31st, at 7 o'clock that Mortier had left Troyes[12] the 30th, with the Imperial Guard, that the Marshal had taken the road of Arcis-sur-Aube and had only left at Troyes some troops of infantry, several squadrons of the Guard and 21 cannons.[13]

Platoff had renewed with no more success than the day before his attacks against Sens.  He also made the 31st an unsuccessful demonstration against Pont-sur-Yonne.  His riders had pushed up to Sergines on the road from Sens to Bray.  Pajol, fearing the Cossacks lay between Nangis and Provins, ordered General du Coëtlosquet to come from Montereau, to join General Montbrun in Pont-sur-Yonne on 1 February in order to support Sens and to cover the communications from Pont-sur-Yonne to Bray.

General dispositions of Schwarzenberg for the 1st of February.  --Thirty one January, Schwarzenberg, who stopped his arrangements for the next day, sent in the evening, orders to his lieutenants that have more than one feature:

"General dispositions for the 1st of February 1814."

"His Excellency Field-Marshal Blücher will march on Brienne and attack this point, according to the measures he deems proper to take in conjunction with the IIIrd and IVth Corps of the Great Army that are under his command for the day of 1 February."

"The Russian grenadiers and cuirassiers will occupy in the morning the current positions of the Field Marshal in Trannes."

"A division of the Russian guard will establish itself before  Bar-sur-Aube, at Ailleville; the rest of this Guard, at Fresnay, so that they can move either on Brienne, to support the Field Marshal, or on-Montier en-Der, to support the Vth and VIth Corps."

"The Vth Corps will march on Montier-en-Der; the VIth on Saint-Dizier where the last corps should, taking into account the events, operate in concert with General-Lieutenant von Yorck against Vitry."

"The Ist Corps occupies Vendeuvre and I will send reconnaissance in the direction of Troyes."

"All reports should be directed to me at Bar-sur-Aube tomorrow and, in case I haven't yet arrived, at Colombey where headquarters will be."

"Field-Marshal Blücher is invited to send me news fron him."

"If the attack succeeds against Brienne, the army of Field Marshal Blücher should proceed towards Vitry. The IVth Corps occupy Brienne, and the IIIrd, Dienville."

"From the headquarters at Chaumont, 31 January 1814. "

We will not dwell here on the original destination given to the Vth Corps, as we've seen, and we'll just remember that Schwarzenberg going on the comments of Wrede, authorized by a second order to move by Soulaines, against the French left.  But it seems impossible not to note some anomalies that must strike somewhat all those who carefully read this order.

Thus, if the corps of the Crown Prince of Württemberg and Gyulay are available for Blücher, Schwarzenberg basically completely abandons management of the operations during the next day, by sending the Russian grenadiers and cuirassiers to relieve Trannes because they are his immediate support and the reserves seem to remain under the command of Barclay de Tolly.

It should also be surprising to see Schwarzenberg place a division of the Russian guard at Ailleville, where it is unfit to be able to move forward to support the IIIrd Corps near Dienville or replace the reserves (grenadiers) posted at Trannes in case they would have to be used by Blücher.  But what is more surprising and even more unique is that after having allocated specifically and exclusively the two corps of Yorck and Wittgenstein for operations against Vitry, as Schwarzenberg knew that Macdonald had not come into line and that the Marshal had little more than 10,000 men, he saw fit to immobilize at Fresnay two divisions of Russian guards, so one could move them from there either on Brienne, or on Montier-en-Der.  Finally, the last part of general order, that directs Blücher in the direction of Vitry after the battle, deserves to be examined more, as it might perhaps clearly without making mistakes, reveal the first trace, the first major inclinations that will lead two days later to the separation of the two Allied armies; this separation so rightly criticized, had become necessary due to ever more profound differences of opinion dividing the commanding generals.

Barclay's particular order to the guards and reserves.  --After highlighting the oddity of the positions assigned to guard and reserves, it should be added that Barclay de Tolly, who kept, even during the day of the 1st of February the direction of his troops, had seen fit to change the order of the Generalissimo.  Indeed, in the particular order in which he addressed from Colombey-les-Deux-Églises on the evening of the 31st, to his generals, he did not post a single division of the guard at Ailleville, but the two divisions, with the brigades of infantry and cavalry of the Prussian Guard and the division of light cavalry of the Russian guard, and would prescribe at same time to unite at four o'clock in the afternoon on the Trannes position.

1st of February.  --Orders of Blücher.  --Finally, although the order of Blücher is dated the 1st February from Trannes, it is impossible to examine the general situation of the two armies before the battle without recounting the previous measures prescribed by Field Marshal:

"At noon, Sacken's Corps, center of the Allied army, will move in two columns against La Rothière: the 1st column (Leven) by the same  road from Trannes to La Rothière; the 2nd (Scherbatov) taking the right of the 1st, immediately after debouching from the position and passing between Trannes and the edge of the wood of Beaulieu.  General Olsufiev will follow the second column which it will support, and the cavalry of Vasilchikov go beyond the infantry, when arriving on the plain, to cover and facilitate its deployment."

"The IIIrd Corps (Gyulay), left of the battle line (from Blücher) supports the movement of the 1st column and move on Dienville. The two divisions of Russian grenadiers and two divisions of cuirassiers (2nd and 3rd Divisions) will post in reserve between the village and the wooded heights of Trannes.  The IVth Corps, Crown Prince of Württemberg, right wing (of Blücher), quitting Éclance at noon, will leave its left at the wood of Beaulieu, flush out the enemy who occupies it, march on Chaumesnil and seek to connect with the right of the corps of Wrede (far right of the battle front)."

Blücher warned, moreover, that his generals would remain in person at the heights of Trannes.

Summary of the Allied positions.  --Effectives in the Allied armies and the French army.  --To summarize the situation on the Allied side, Blücher[14] had ordered to move from Trannes against La Rothière, the center of the French positions.  He had assigned to this effect the IIIrd and IVth Corps.  The first of these two corps must cover his left side of the Aube and the chase the right of the Emperor from Dienville; the IVth Corps would move right at La Giberie to facilitate the capture of La Rothière and allow Wrede to debouch from the woods of Soulaines.[15]

The total number of Allied troops was therefore between 78,000 and 80,000 men[16] with 200 guns, to wit: the Army of Silesia 27,000, the IIIrd Corps 12,000, the IVth 14,000, the Vth 26,000, supported by the Russian and Prussian Reserves that could bring about 34,000 men in line.  But since only a small portion of the reserves and guard (the 2nd Grenadier Division) took part in combat, it would not be an exaggeration to say 85,000 men by assessing the total number of Allied troops who contributed at La Rothière.

To the Allied masses, whose numerical superiority could have been even more overwhelming if Schwarzenberg had directed the 12,000 men of the VIth Corps (Wittgenstein) on Brienne and placed on the reserve so that the 25,000 men who witnessed the fight from afar, would have been able to participate; if, instead of stopping Colloredo, he had directed him to continue his march with his 27,000 men, and, on another part, one had left Yorck to fall back on Brienne with 15,000 men of the Ist Prussian Corps these already considerable masses, Napoleon was able to oppose a total of just over forty thousand men.  Neither Macdonald nor Mortier were at that moment within his reach, and he had for the 1st of February, those of the corps of Gerard (8,337 men), Victor (17,300 men), Marmont (8,200 men) and Ney (11,300 men ), a total of 45,137 men with 128 guns.[17]

French position.  --Letter from the Emperor to Clarke.  --As to the position occupied by the French army[18], it is revealed in broad strokes by the dispatch that the Emperor addressed from Brienne, 31 January in the evening, to the Minister of War[19]:

"These are the dispositions for the day.  General de la Hamelinaye has 4,000 men at Troyes and 12 cannon pieces...the Duke of Trévise arrived this evening at 6 o'clock at Troyes.  I ordered General de France, with 1200 men of the Guards of Honor, and General Maurin, with 600 men of the division Bordesoulle and 4 pieces of light artillery, to return to Piney.  The Duke of Trévise will have at hand the Old Guard (15,000 men) and General Gérard with the division of Hamelinaye (12,000 men)."

"...I want to have a route from Arcis-sur-Aube to Paris, which does not cross over the Aube: or, the road crosses the Aube at Nogent.  I want there to be one that goes from Arcis to Sézanne and from there to La Ferté-sous-Jouarre by Chateau-Thierry.  Reconnoiter the roads with geographic engineers and send engineers to prepare the bridges and roads and improve this route as soon as possible..."

"To complete the position of the army, I must say that the division Ricard occupies Dienville.  The Duke of Bellune is before the village of La Rothière.  The Duke of Raguse is at Soulaines.  I have my vanguard at Maizières and the rest of my troops at Brienne.  I have on the Aube the bridge of Dienville, that of Brienne-la-Vieille, that of Lesmont and that of Arcis.  The Duke of Tarente covers Châlons and Vitry, whose possession gives us a good bridge over the Marne and a fulcrum that is of utmost importance to have."

"General Pajol must always remain in Nogent or Montereau to handle the most important of its functions:  to inform Paris against all kinds of parties approach."

The Emperor is seen, after having changed since his arrival at Brienne, his line of operations, without completely abandoning Châlons, and as if he had foreseen that Macdonald would fail to hold it, already about the 31st ordering nothing sent there and having everything directed on Sézanne.  Finally, as if he had also, since 31 January, the presentiment of his retirement on Troyes and its subsequent march against Blücher, he was already thinking about taking his latest line of operations by Nogent.

Causes of inaction by the Emperor on 30 and 31 January.  --Without going into the heart of an issue that we need to examine in detail when determining the exact consequences of the Battle of La Rothière, it is still essential to try to discover the reasons for which the Emperor, after having remained almost inactive during the days of the 30th and 31st, seems to have decided in the end to support such a disproportionate fight on 1 February.

If one can rightly criticize the Emperor for accepting the Battle of La Rothière under such uneven conditions, and although it is possible to present arguments and provide evidence that mitigate a fault that is singularly surprising to see him commit, especially because it is a flagrant violation of the principles he had always advocated and implemented, one can, none the less, find many explanations for his inaction during the days of 30 and 31 January .

Napoleon had not for a moment deluded himself about the consequences of combat, of the 29th.  If political considerations, if dynastic interests convinced him to risk operations that would probably have been avoided otherwise, the hopes he could and should have as a sovereign, however, had not impaired the vision of the general.

In the night following the Battle of Brienne he had dictated a letter to Berthier in which he said to Marmont:

"It is likely that we will fight tomorrow," and he believed so much in an attack against his army from the 30th by Blücher and the reinforcements he expected to see him receive, he mandated to the Marshal to join him as soon as possible.

However, the passive and expectant attitude of Blücher should have given pause to the Emperor, and it is certain that the immobility of Field Marshal on days of the 30th and 31st inspired him to distrust (his decision).  We do not want to justify the inaction of Napoleon and explain his persistence in maintaining his small army between Brienne and La Rothière using the arguments given by Fain and Koch.  One argued that the Emperor could not refuse battle and retreat to Troyes because he had to wait until the bridge at Lesmont was repaired.  The second said that, believing the army of Schwarzenberg on the way to Auxerre, Napoleon remained in the presence of the Army of Silesia in the hope of containing it if it were to make a move, or get to be in a better position if it took the initiative to attack.  Others, like Clausewitz, tried to find the reason for this inaction in that the Emperor was waiting for Marmont and did not want to continue the offensive until he arrived.  None of these reasons seem either conclusive nor even likely. First, because having beaten Blücher on the 29th without Marmont's presence, he should have thought himself strong enough to finalize his victory the next day with no additional troops at his disposal.  Secondly, because if had wished, he could have, pending repairs to the bridge at Lesmont, crossed the Aube by the Radonvilliers bridge, west of the city, or, in a pinch, the bridge of Dienville.  Finally, because assuming, even a thought for a moment, which is far from proven, that Schwarzenberg with the bulk of his forces was on the road from Auxerre, he was too clear-sighted not to perceive that the immobility of Blücher had no other cause to be near the corps of the Great Army of Bohemia.  It is evident, however, that the Emperor had been disappointed in his calculations which had hoped to arrive in time to crush Blücher before his junction with Schwarzenberg.  From the 30th, the Emperor could no longer retain doubts about this: the junction was made and that it could become more deadly if he held on to one of these central positions which if it had given him the victory at Dresden, had earned him the disaster of Leipzig. Napoleon knew better than anyone the benefits as the dangers of interior lines.  Better than anyone, he knew they are only useful for speed of movements, they are, instead, dangerous it one remains stationary, and as so justly said by the alumnus of the École Polytechnique A.G., they are positions for waiting and observation and not positions for combat.

It is because this central position allowed him to move, either on Châlons, or on Troyes, or on the Voire, near Rosnay, either on the Barse by the bridge Guillotière that the Emperor had decided , pending events, to stay there for 48 hours, although he did not intend to fight with less than 50,000 men against the 150,000 that the Allies could throw at him.

The Emperor did not want to fight the Battle of La Rothière.  --But if the Emperor had good reasons for trying to hold, until the last moment, the benefits inherent in the internal lines of operation, other considerations of an entirely different character, political considerations prevented him from wriggling out the next day from the advantage, however slight it may have been, he had gained against Blücher.  These were political necessities which, at least as far as the overall military situation had led him to take the offensive on the 27th.  It is this offensive that pushed him with his usual energy on 29th and would have continued to push though, past the 30th, if he had not realized the dangers of his position, the dangers that new forward movements would have aggravated.  Unable to retreat, at least immediately, he decided to stay on his position.  Only in this way could he overawe his opponents, rekindle the patriotism of the people, facilitate the levée en masse, impose silence on the criminal intrigues of his internal enemies.  One cannot therefore reproach him for resting two days before the position of Blücher; for as early as the 31st in the evening, the Emperor had indeed understood that it was now impossible to fall on Blücher. He saw through the game and his opponents, as he did seven weeks later at Arcis-sur-Aube, he was already thinking of withdrawing the next day because the 31st, at 9 o'clock in the evening he was writing to Ney and his other lieutenants, "We will wait on this position for news of the enemy and everything will be ready to go in the direction to be given."[20]

Finally, it is certain that if the Emperor had intended to fight in these regions and especially to accept the fight, he would have chosen a battlefield less disadvantageous from the tactical point of view and particularly one more in tune with the size of the forces at his disposal.


[1] Journal of Major Prince of Thurn and Taxis (manuscript). (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., XIII. 32.)

[2] He stirred up Marmont's troops there.

[3] Tagebuch der Majors Fürsten Taxis. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., XIII, 32.)

[4] General of Cavalry Count Wrede to Prince Schwarzenberg, Doulevant, 31 January. (Ibid., I, 799.)

[5] The Generalissimo forgot, obviously on purpose, the orders that he had initiated a few hours earlier, and sent to Wrede in Montier-en-Der.

[6] "Generalleutnant von Yorck to Schwarzenberg:"

"Écriennes, 2 February 1814, 11 o'clock at night."

"... According to the orders of Feldmarschall Blücher I had to march, 30 January, to Saint-Dizier, and the 31st, to Vitry.  I found in Saint-Dizier, the rear guard of Marshal Marmont, under the command of General Lagrange.  I attacked there, then chased from Saint-Dizier, taking a cannon and pursued by Wassy up to Montier-en-Der."

"Count Wittgenstein arrived with his corps at Wassy, the ​​31st at night, and therefore I left him the task of continuing the pursuit of the enemy to conform with executing the orders which bade me march on Vitry."

"The news of the concentration of the Allied army at Bar-sur-Aube and actually  if it was preparing to give the enemy a great battle, made me think that my duty is to get closer to this point with my corps. I directed a brigade of my corps on Vitry; this brigade took the road to Vitry the 31st and I prepared to follow Count Wittgenstein by Wassy to go to Brienne, when I received Your Highness's orders to attack Vitry with the assistance of VIth Corps (General Count Wittgenstein). (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II. 29.)

[7] Correspondence of Napoleon, no 21162.

[8] HENCKEL, Erinnerungen aus meinem Leben.

[9] "General Yorck to the French:"

"It is with much regret that I just heard of bad behavior of some farmers in the vicinity of the town of Saint-Dizier, who, excited by perfidious advice, were advised to fire on my troops.  The French nation knows too well the principles of honor and integrity not to be indignant at such a betrayal, that will cause the suffering of the innocent with the guilty.  I want to forgive the wayward people this time, but I warn the residents of all towns and villages where they commit similar excesses that they will be forced to surrender to me the perpetrators and instigators under penalty of burning their homes, according to orders from the commander in chief, Prince Schwarzenberg."

"I also warn that any man who will take up arms in hand out of uniform or without being regimented, will be tried and punished as a brigand."

"I gave very strict orders to maintain good order and discipline, and I urge all residents to return with confidence to their homes.  They can be confident that their persons and properties will be respected, promising to bring to justice all who will bring to me their complaints."

"At Saint-Dizier, 31 January 1814."

[10] Chief of Staff to Macdonald:  "Saint-Dizier, 28 January, 9 o'clock in the morning (received on 1/29 at Rethel).  --The Emperor, learning that Blücher, with 25,000 men, was at Brienne, left today, the 28th from Saint-Dizier to attack.  It is desirable that you concentrate as soon as possible at Châlons, and immediately on arrival at Châlons, send parties on Arcis and Brienne to sweep the country, to enable communication and receive orders, according to circumstances."  (Records of Berthier.)

[11] Duke of Valmy to the Chief of Staff:  "Châlons, 29 January.  --A large convoy of wine, brandy, spirits, shirts, sheets, lint, bandages, canvas and bags sent from Mézières to Charlemont, was abducted and robbed by troops of the Duke of Tarente: the containers of wine and spirits pierced with fusils shots, the carriages smashed, peasants mistreated.  It is an irreparable loss, both by value and by its nature and the impossibility of replacing it. The troops of this corps behaved abominably, and the unfortunate people have no fear of worse treatment at the hands of the enemy.  Carriages were forcibly abducted, as well as horses; the carriers are forced to walk forty to fifty miles without being relieved, no further salary but insults and blows.  All transportation for even the food to nourish the army will become impossible, and the lack of public spirit that will remain, alienated by such excess, and disappear."

In another report, Kellermann demanded, as Macdonald came to Châlons, to be sent elsewhere; he was more senior himself than Marshall, could not serve under him and consequently, did nothing at Châlons.

[12] Thurn could not have known at that time that Marshal Mortier was en route from Arcis-sur-Aube to Troyes, where he would return with all his people, the 31st in the evening. Mortier proposed then  --his dispatch from Troyes, the 31st, to the Chief of Staff in fact proves -- to push the next day reconnaissance, on one hand on Chaource, on the other to Vendeuvre.  He thought to move, with the bulk of his forces, on this last point, if the Emperor undertook a movement on Bar-sur-Aube.

[13] Thurn to Schwarzenberg, Saint-Phal, 31 January. 7 o'clock at night. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., I, 705.)

If there was any doubt about the ignorance in which the Mortier remained from the 28th to 30th and the importance of the taking of Colonel Bénard that we discussed in detail above, it suffices to read the dispatch that the Duke of Trévise wrote to the Chief of Staff, from Arcis-sur-Aube, 31 January at ten o'clock in the morning:

"Sir, I am sending you the duplicate of the letter I wrote to you last night.  Having received no news from Your Highness, I am extremely embarrassed."

"If, as we are assured, the Emperor marches on Bar-sur-Aube, it seems essential to me that I move myself on Vendeuvre.  Your Highness may judge how, in this uncertainty, my position has to be embarrassing, and I beg therefore to let me pass instructions on how I should proceed."

"P. S.  --It is likely that my dispatches to Your Highness and those that Your Highness has done me the honor to address have been intercepted; it is not to assume that, without this circumstance, I find myself without orders." (Archives of the War.)

It is worth noting that Mortier only vaguely knew the plans of the Emperor by a letter he wrote Bordesoulle, the 29th at night, from Arcis-sur-Aube. (See Archives of the War, letter from Bordesoulle to the Chief of Staff.)

[14] Kurzgefasste Darstellung der Kriegsereignisse der schlesischen Armee. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv. I. 31.)

[15] Consequently, the IIIrd Corps marched on Dienville according to the journal of the  1st of February, connecting, by Cossacks and some squadrons of Austrian cavalry in the left column of Sacken, and to the right with the second column of Sacken, the Cossacks of Karpov II and the corps of Biron ensuring the connection between this column and Württembergers.

[16] 79,284 men after Schels and situations of the K. K. Kriegs Archiv., with 200 guns, of which only 150 were able, because of the state of the land, to be brought on line.

[17] Situation on the morning of the 1st of February. (Archives of the War.)

[18] The 31st January at 7 o'clock at night, Victor, whose headquarters was in Petit-Mesnil and in the presence of the deployment of large forces between Trannes and Éclance had, rightly, thought it imprudent to attempt in the afternoon a reconnaissance in force against the plateau of Trannes, was content to put his 1st Division within cannon shot of the Allied lines on the edge of the woods of Beaulieu and of La Rothière, debouching on the main road leading from Éclance to La Giberie. His 2nd Division had redeployed at nightfall on La Rothière with the light cavalry.  The dragoons held La Giberie, scouting on Éclance and Trannes.  The position of the 2nd Corps wasn't, in summary, bad; but the Marshal, all the same, advised the Chief of Staff that, due to the wetness of the ground, he would have great difficulty using his cannon.

As for Ney, he had, under an order dated the 31st at nine in the evening, to give  battle, at break of day, with the divisions under his orders with their artillery in front of Brienne, "en potence" (with a flank forming an angle with the line) on the road of Maizières.

A little later in the evening, when the Emperor had learned from an officer of the division of Lagrange of the march of Marmont from Soulaines to Brienne, he had sent to the Duke of Raguse an order to come and settle between Brienne and Soulaines, to act in concert with the Duke of Bellune, and as it was difficult to move the earth to improve his position by covering it with abatis.

[19] Correspondance de Napoléon, no 21l62.

[20] Berthier to Ney, Marmont, Oudinot, Drouot and Victor, Brienne, 31 January, 9 o'clock at night. (Archives of the War.)


Placed on the Napoleon Series: January 2012

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