Military Subjects: Battles & Campaigns

The Campaign of 1814: Chapter Six Part VIII

By: Maurice Weil

Translated by: Greg Gorsuch


(after the Imperial and Royal War Archives at Vienna)





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

2 February.  --First movements of the Allies at 8 o'clock in the morning.  --On the side of the Allies, they had kept absolutely quiet all night and it was the only with the day that they prepared to execute the orders contained in the general dispositions given by Schwarzenberg before the battle.  It was at the time the Allied sovereigns, accompanied by the Generalissimo and leaving from Bar-sur-Aube, where they had spent the night, arrived just after sunrise on the battlefield, that their outposts reported the retirement of the French army.  There was thus an unprecedented negligence, allowing the vanquished to escape, gaining several hours advance ahead of a victor who had yet to deploy many troops which did not take part in the yesterday's affair.  The measures themselves taken to find traces of the enemy seem, indeed, to justify the view expressed by Clausewitz.  Was it because the victory made them presumptuous, because they believed the campaign finally had ended and the road to Paris was opened with a single battle?  Is it in the realm of politics that we should seek the causes of this singular way of operating?  It is nonetheless clear that the rulers and Allied generals thought fit to deprive Blücher and the Army of Silesia from participation in the prosecution and were content to move against Brienne the IIIrd, IVth and Vth Corps of the great Army of Bohemia: the first, from Dienville by the right bank of the Aube; the other two, around Petit-Mesnil and Chaumesnil where they had spent the night, instructing them to inquire about the direction followed by enemy in retreat.[1]

March of the IIIrd Corps on Brienne.  --Movement of the cavalry of IVth and Vth Corps.  --Gyulay himself acknowledges in his brief report on the role of his corps at the Battle of La Rothière that it "could not, because of terrible weather, pursue the enemy during the night of the 1st to 2nd, that it was content to establish a few small cavalry posts on both sides of the Aube."[2] It arrived a little after 8 o'clock in the morning before Brienne-la-Vieille, still occupied by a small French rear guard who, after an engagement of short duration, fell back on Brienne-le-Château, followed by the advance guard brigade of the Fresnel Division.

At 8 o'clock in the morning, the Crown Prince of Württemberg, placed himself personally at the head of his cavalry, and left La Giberie and Petit-Mesnil, connected on his right hand with the cavalry of the Vth Corps, and followed the French rear guard in the direction of Brienne.  The infantry of the two corps began its motion at the same time, marching in several columns in the same direction as the cavalry, while Frimont debouched from Chaumesnil with the troops of the division of Antoine Hardegg that manned the outposts during the night.[3]

The advanced guard of the Vth Corps[4] came against some French parties a short distance from Brienne-la-Vieille, as would the IIIrd Corps entering the village that it had attacked by the road Dienville.

"The outposts having informed me of the retreat of the enemy," writes Frimont to Wrede from Brienne 3 February,[5]  "I moved all my cavalry forward followed by my infantry formed into three columns.  I encountered the enemy at Brienne.  His horse was standing alone in the plain; his infantry was already in the defiles and the enemy's left rested on the village of Perthes.  My cavalry was quickly moved forward, but it failed to reach the enemy that withdrew without waiting for my attack."

The French troops, having noticed the deployment of three Allied corps had indeed gone back on the road of Lesmont in a line from Brienne-le-Château to Perthes-en-Rothière.  Milhaud's cavalry, whose right was protected by infantry posted in the defiles and whose left rested on the village of Perthes, covering the movement.

The IIIrd Corps had from Brienne-la-Vieille continued its march to Brienne and was able to take the city and the castle after a brisk engagement with the French rearguard.  The artillery of the Austro-Bavarian advanced guard and two horse batteries of the IVth Corps had effectively supported the movement of Gyulay's troops, which was done under the very eyes of the Generalissimo.  Schwarzenberg, if we believe the Austrian documents, resolved at that time to follow with the IIIrd and IVth Corps the last French troops in retreat on Lesmont while Wrede with the Vth Corps, taking the rightmost headed for the Voire and Rosnay-l'Hôpital.

March of the Vth Corps towards the Voire.  --Combat of Rosnay.  --According to the historian of Wrede, however, and especially after the journal of Prince Taxis, the movement of the Vth Corps against Rosnay was not ordered by Schwarzenberg.  "The commander of the Vth Corps had sent," as well expressed in this regard by Taxis,[6] "on the 1st of February in the evening one of his officers to the Generalissimo and the officer returned from Bar-sur-Aube without bringing orders."  No sooner had Wrede passed through Brienne that he pointed his right on the march of a French column moving along the Voire, to Rosnay.  Fearing for his right and also hoping to arrive before the enemy at the bridges of the Voire, Wrede left the Crown Prince of Württemberg free to pursue the enemy at will and took with the Vth Corps, the road to the Voire.

"It would certainly have been better," added the aide-de-camp of Wrede, "to push right to the Aube and pursue the enemy, as Wrede had no more cavalry than the Crown Prince of Württemberg and furthermore it was closer to the enemy than the latter.  Had we done so, we would probably could have seized the better part of the French artillery that would have had a hard time reaching and crossing the bridge of Lesmont.  Instead, we preferred to take a different direction and at noon, the head of the cavalry of the Vth Corps was on the bridge of the Voire."

With the tip of his vanguard (3rd battalion of Austrian jäger and Archduke Joseph Hussars), Wrede moved rapidly forward in the hope of seizing the existing bridges to the west of Rosnay on the different branches of the Voire and which connect the village with Lassicourt.  Because of the frost, the French had not completely destroyed them while retreating and had to restrict itself to making incomplete cuts for lack of tools for cutting the trusses.

It was indeed extremely important to Wrede, on his arrival to separate Marmont from the rest of the army, to most quickly take up positions on the right bank of the Voire and settle on the hills protected by the marshland lying at their feet, so he could await, despite the attacks of the enemy, the arrival of the bulk of his corps.  The Austrian jäger and two squadrons of hussars at first managed to cross onto the right bank of the Voire where they were even joined by some companies of Székeler infantry.  But having bravely resisted two attacks of Marmont's troops, they were charged and cut down by the French light cavalry and thrown onto the left bank.

Despite the arrival of the Rechberg Division on the line and despite being supported and prepared by artillery fire of the Vth corps, the attacks of Wrede, both those directed to the front of Lassicourt, as those attempted by the rightmost brigade of Prince Charles of Bavaria, failed completely against the clever dispositions of the Duke of Raguse and the good performance of his troops.  The fight had taken on considerable proportions so much so that the fire was so intense that the Emperor of Russia, King of Prussia and Schwarzenberg, after holding the conference at Brienne in which they definitively decided to separate the two armies, believed it necessary to go in person to the scene of the fight where until about 5 o'clock in the evening all the efforts of the Vth Corps were broken against the energetic resistance and skillful direction of some weak French battalions.

Wrede even seemed willing to give up an enterprise that had already cost a lot from his army corps, when by a fortuitous circumstance the Duke of Raguse was forced to withdraw.  The Schwarzenberg Uhlans, in following the course of the Voire, had discovered a ford in the area of Rances.  Crossing the river at this point, they now threaten the left wing of the Marshal who had, however, having achieved the goal he had set for himself, believed rightly that it was time to evacuate first Rosnay then the heights, methodically beating a retreat and gaining a head start on the enemy.  The Duke of Raguse then retreated in echelon, and graced by the snow that fell in large flakes, through the proper maintenance of tirailleurs that he had left in position, the Allies did not notice his departure until the bulk his corps was already moving on Dampierre where his rearguard even managed to join without being disturbed on the route. Marmont had so well concealed his retirement that parties of cavalry that Hardegg had pushed after the evacuation of Rosnay up to two leagues ahead of this point, returned at 7 o'clock in the evening announcing that they had not only raised no trace of the enemy, but they did not even notice any campfires on the horizon.

After the battle, which had cost on the admission of the historian of Wrede, 53 officers and 1,045 men in the Vth Corps[7] the division of Count Antoine Hardegg confined himself to Lassicourt.  Two Austrian companies and three Bavarian companies were responsible for guarding the bridges.  Three squadrons and two companies settled in front of these bridges on the right bank of the Voire on the heights of Bétignicourt at Rosnay.  He had also placed an outpost at Bétignicourt and another on the left bank of the Voire, at Saint-Christophe.  As for the bulk of the Vth Corps, it returned in the evening, camping at Brienne.

In his Tagebuch Prince Taxis naturally could not ignore the fighting at Rosnay: "The bridge, though damaged, was still passable.  It was established near the village of Rosnay-l'Hôpital, occupied by troops of Marmont.  The Marshal was stationed on a hill immediately in front of the bridge.  The Bavarian infantry tried to dislodge him; but it was retaken under the eyes of the Emperor of Russia, Grand Duke Constantine and Schwarzenberg."

"Without seeking to mitigate the undeniable faults that Wrede committed 2 February," Taxis adds a note a little farther on however that the real culprit is none other than Wittgenstein, who had stubbornly gone to Wassy, 31 January.  "If Count Wittgenstein had agreed on 30 January, to follow the advice of Wrede, the Battle of La Rothière might have had other consequences, and in any case, taken from behind on 2 February by an attack from Montier-en -Der, Marmont would certainly have been seriously compromised.  Instead, he could defend the crossing of the Voire at Rosnay and was able to hold all the better as new orders from Schwarzenberg, 3 February, directed the corps of Wrede on Lesmont.  The fighting, which cost the Bavarians many people, lasted until evening, and Marmont could slip into the night and reach the Aube."

There can be no better tribute to the Duke of Raguse by the aide-de-camp of his opponent than this; nothing more fully highlights the contrasts with the unaccountable conduct of the Duke of Raguse throughout this campaign and the inconceivable failure of one of the most maligned lieutenants of the Emperor.  Throughout his retirement from the Rhine to the Aube, he had shown a weakness and neglect that had already gained just reproaches of the Emperor. Then suddenly: just when having compromised the fate of his rear-guard at Saint-Dizier; after having, by an excess of caution, with an almost criminal timidity, abandoned positions that Napoleon had prescribed him to occupy by Soulaines to a few Cossacks; and after allowing Wrede to play a role on the battlefield, a role that would prove so deadly...he pulled himself together suddenly.  Then we find again at Rosnay the bold captain who once had no fears with 6,000 men of attacking the Russians with 15,000 at Castel Nuovo and, by this victory, assuring the conquest of Dalmatia; we recognize the victor of the Archduke Charles at Znojmo (Znaïm); the brilliant chief of the Army of Portugal, whose fine maneuvers had managed to stop for nearly six months, Wellington's army; but the Duke of Raguse had unfortunately lost that enthusiasm, that energy, that would have made his reputation.  His weariness, discouragement, his compromises would not only paralyze him once in the course of this campaign, his great and real military qualities, but would again forever tarnished the luster of glory previously pristine and spotless.

Action of the IIIrd and IVth Corps at Lesmont.  --While the resistance of the Duke of Raguse stopped the Vth Corps on the side of Rosnay, two battalions of the IIIrd Corps had continued to file in front of Brienne by the heights that rise along the Aube.  They were to flank the left of the cavalry of the IVth Corps, supported by its horse batteries, following, especially by making use of its artillery, the extreme rearguard of the French retreat on Lesmont by Précy-Saint-Martin.  During this march the Austrian hussar regiment of Archduke Ferdinand reached between Saint-Christophe and Lesmont a regiment of Polish lancers that it crushed.[8]

The Crown Prince of Württemberg arrived and, following the French cavalry to the foot of the heights of Lesmont where the Emperor, to cover his retreat, had massed the divisions of Meunier and Decouz, supported by 24 guns charged with giving the French cavalry time to take a position behind the infantry and stop by their fire, the cavalry of the IVth Corps.  The Crown Prince of Württemberg having no infantry on hand was forced, first to halt, then retire with his batteries out of reach of the French artillery fire.  The Emperor took advantage of this retrograde movement to pull back at 4 o'clock the bulk of his troops on the left bank of the Aube.  He only left in Lesmont, moreover, a small rear guard of 400 to 500 men intended to slow the march of the Allies until the evening.

To flush out this handful of men from Lesmont, Gyulay, whose corps had arrived in line at almost the same time as the IVth infantry corps, formed the Czollich Brigade in massed battalions on the heights of Précy.  He thought to attack Lesmont by the left, while General Stockmeyer, with four battalions of the IVth Corps, would move against this point along the roadway.  The French rearguard then abandoned Lesmont, crossed to the left bank of the Aube after destroying the bridge and firmly established themselves in the houses on the banks of the river.  A squadron of the 3rd Württemberg Dragoons (Crown Prince Regiment) led by Lieutenant-Colonel von Bismarck, chief of Staff of the IVth Corps cavalry, had vainly tried to push to the bridge and prevent its destruction.  He was forced to withdraw before the murderous fire from the houses on the left bank.  A squadron of light horse of Klenau also tried this enterprise, but without success.[9]  The French skirmishers (tirailleurs) succeeded in maintaining themselves on the left bank of the Aube for most of the night of 2-3 February and prevented by their presence and by their fire, the Allied process of restoring the bridge.  Part of the IIIrd and IVth Corps infantry confined himself at Lesmont and at Saint-Christophe; the rest of the infantry and cavalry in the nearby villages of the right bank of the Aube.  The Crenneville Division, which had waited for the arrival of the columns of Colloredo at Vendeuvre, stopped at 2 at night in Saint-Léger under Brienne.

The destruction of the bridge at Lesmont resulting from the resistance of the two divisions of Ney to the IIIrd and IVth Corps, could have been easily avoided if the headquarters of the Allies had thought to use, instead from the Ist Austrian corps, the division of Crenneville, whose presence seems to have been forgotten on the left bank of the Aube.

Movement of the Ist Corps.  --The Ist Corps could otherwise also have been used on the left bank of the Aube.  Although the commander of the Ist Corps had sent from Bar-sur-Seine: towards the Yonne on Chaource the light division of Count Ignatius Hardegg (2 battalions, 12 squadrons and a horse battery) ; on Fouchères, the light division of Prince Maurice Liechtenstein, with orders to watch the left bank of the Seine between Bar-sur-Seine and Troyes; and to Virey-sous-Bois, an infantry regiment responsible for supporting the latter division, he still had 27 battalions and 12 squadrons with which he left Vendeuvre at 6 o'clock in the morning, heading on Dienville whose occupation he was unaware of and which his troops entered at 11:30.  The Feldzeugmeister immediately informed the Generalissimo of his arrival, asked him for orders and told him that, according to information he had collected, the road from Dienville to Piney appeared to be impracticable for artillery.  Colloredo had just forwarded the information to headquarters that he was ordered to move by Piney on Troyes.  But in the presence of bad road conditions and the claims of the Feldzeugmeister, the Generalissimo agreed in the course of the day, to change his instructions and to authorize, instead of acting against the right flank of the retreating enemy, to return on the path he had travelled to Vendeuvre and to proceed from there with his corps[10] to Troyes.

The Ist Corps, delayed in its march by terrible weather and heavy snow storms, could not reach Vendeuvre until the night of the 2nd to 3rd.  His artillery only arrived there at 3 to 6 o'clock in the morning, and all it could do was to push up the road to Troyes the regiment of light horse of Rosenberg that settled in outposts around the Villeneuve-au-Chêne .

Movement of the guard and reserves.  --Cavalry affair of Villiers-le-Brûlé.  --On the morning of that day, Schwarzenberg had ordered General Ozharovsky to cross the Aube, with the light cavalry of the Russian guard at the bridge of Dolancourt, to descend through its course the left bank in directing him on Piney, and finally to seek the direction taken by the French army in retreat.  But as Barclay de Tolly was afraid to leave the division of light cavalry without support, he had ordered the corps of grenadiers of General Rayevsky and the Russian 2nd and 3rd Grenadier Divisions to begin to move from Trannes on Dienville and from there on Piney.  These reserves, left from Trannes in the morning, pushing, according to Russian documents up to around Villiers-le-Brûlé (2 kilometers from Piney), whereas, according to Austrian documents, the grenadiers and cuirassiers had not gone past Radonvilliers.

As for the parts of the Guards and the 1st Cuirassier Division, like the grenadiers, they had been moved from Trannes on Vendeuvre, to the surprise of Colloredo, who had not yet received the dispatch in which the Generalissimo, informed him at 10 in the evening of that movement, inviting him to give way to the Guards and afterwards to immediately continue on Troyes.  When the head of the Guards column appeared at Vendeuvre the Ist Corps was still only partly installed, and the simultaneous arrival of these two corps debouching, one by the road from Dienville, the other by that of Dolancourt, produced in this camp, too small for a single corps, a tangled and an unspeakable confusion.  The bulk of the troops had to camp under the stars in a terrible temperature.  Of all these troops, the division of light cavalry of the Russian Guard General Ozharovsky had, alone on this side, a small affair with the French cavalry.

So while General Seslavin,[11] who scoured the country between Piney and Lesmont, announced from the information of an officer he had taken prisoner, that all the French army was retreating from Lesmont to Vitry, General Ozharovsky declared 2 February, at 6 o'clock, to Barclay de Tolly,[12] he had come up against a party of French cavalry in Villiers-le-Brûlé, and that he had driven them in the direction of Piney. General Ozharovsky added, moreover, he had been held by 2,000 men and 6 guns from Lesmont.  This contradictory information increased the anxiety still prevailing at the time in the general headquarters.

The Emperor, indeed, had from Lesmont, at 1 o'clock in the afternoon, prescribed through the Chief of Staff for Grouchy to move on Piney with his cavalry which would be followed by the 2nd Corps (Duke of Bellune) and the report that Milhaud sent from Villiers-le-Brûlé at 8 o'clock at night to Grouchy, gives an exact account of the affair of Villiers-le-Brûlé. "We found in Villiers-le-Brûlé a regiment of dragoons and a regiment of Russian uhlans, 1,000 horses strong.  We had on our right a regiment of Cossacks.[13]  We had to charge three times to keep them away from the village.  The 26th Battalion only had a company of 150 men with fusils that would fire.  I ordered to cut the two bridges, the one leading to Dienville and another on the side of the village; but found throughout the fords. The brigade of Ludot only engaged with the enemy; I supported the infantry company but I didn't have a battalion to securely occupy the village.[14] My troops lack bread and drink.  The men are tired of the service and complain about not eating in France.  I am asking for the same allotments as the infantry.  This is the true way to conserve the energy of our soldiers and to keep them from deserting."

"P.S.  --We are surrounded by 3,000 enemy horses and their campfires are 500 meters from ours."

Strange thing: it was only at this point that the Allies had, on the 2nd the evening, established, though very incomplete, contact with the retreating troops of Napoleon.  Everywhere else one had managed to lose track of the French army.

Affair of Thurn with the inhabitants of Ervy.  --Movements of Platov.  --To the left of the Allies, Lieutenant-Colonel Count Thurn had proposed to connect that day by Avreuil and Les Granges, with the division of Count Ignatius Hardegg posted at Chaource; but the inhabitants of Ervy greeted his vanguard with stones.  Thurn charged them with half a squadron, and immediately after his entry into this small town, warned the mayor that he would shoot at the slightest attempted aggression against his party by his administration.  "This threat," said Thurn[15] combined with sending out patrols, restored quiet."  Despite this, the Lieutenant-Colonel dared not house all his people in the city, and bivouacked at a little distance from Ervy on a height where he dominated and observed the road from Saint-Florentin.

Further left still, Platov had the night of 1-2 February, left his position of Malay.  Crossing from the right bank on to the left bank and following the course of the Yonne, he moved on Villeneuve-le-Roi (Villeneuve-sur-Yonne).

General Allix had been reinforced by the cavalry of General Coëtlosquet, who he advised not to engage, not to compromise, moreover, by drawing the attention of the Cossacks to himself and to post 300 horses on the Rozoy heights, sending two parties on Véron and Passy.  But these parties were left surrounded and taken without firing a shot, and General Coëtlosquet had to withdraw, without any serious concern, it is true, up to the border of the Vanne, a short distance from Sens.  The skirmish had cost the French cavalry, in prisoners alone: ​​1 Lieutenant Colonel, 3 officers and 80 men.[16]

General Allix, who left Sens for his part, marched along the left bank of Villeneuve-le-Roi, through Paron, Gron and Marsanges; parties that covered his right also left, falling back with the General around Marsanges, having pushed the Cossacks back, who felt obliged to withdraw to Sens.

Despite these advantages, Platov, knowing that General Montbrun occupied Pont-sur-Yonne with two battalions of National Guards, informed by others of the arrival online of the cavalry brigade of General Coëtlosquet (who withdrew, moreover, the next day of the 3rd on Fontainebleau), rather than move on Melun down the Yonne and Seine, thought it wiser to move by Courtenay towards Fontainebleau.  Platov however, had outlined a move towards Montargis and sent in this direction a party of Cossacks under the command of captain the Guards, Bergmann who, after spending the night of the 1st to 2nd in Courtenay, advanced on the 2nd at dawn up to around Montargis.  Captain Bergmann managed to deliver at this point from a convoy 405 officers, 15 non-commissioned officers, 82 Spanish soldiers, 49 women and 4 children being evacuated from Epernay on Bourges.[17] The party of Captain Bergmann then marched around to Montargis on Ferrières.

Movement of the VIth Corps on Vitry and Montier-en-Der.  --Not content to making the corps of Colloredo march and counter march, the Chief of Staff did the same in respect to the VIth Corps.  From his headquarters in Saint-Dizier, Wittgenstein, whose corps[18]  served as a reserve to the Prussian Ist Corps, had commanded the cavalry of General Pahlen to continue his march on Vitry and to unite with Yorck.  Pahlen, after rallying in route the detachment of Major General Rüdinger,[19] moved from Chavanges on to Gigny and Bussy-aux-Bois and pushed his outposts far to Vitry, while General Ilovaysky XII continued to watch the French posts in line Maizières-Rosnay. Around noon, they heard guns in the direction of Vitry.  But as Wittgenstein19 was preparing to march in that direction, he received an order from the Generalissimo written on leaving the conference he had held with the rulers at the castle of Brienne, in which he prescribed him to retrace his steps and return to Montier-en-Der.

Operations of the Prussian Ist Corps.  --Skirmish at Saint-Amand.  --These counter orders, these constant changes of direction of the VIth Corps, did little to facilitate the mission entrusted to Yorck, in charge of seizing by force Vitry, whose importance in being taken by the Allies, moreover, hasten as they learned of the approach by the troops of the Duke of Tarente.

Yorck employed the morning to concentrate his corps near Marolles, to cross the Ornain with the main body near Vitry-le-Brûlé and mass the 8th Brigade between Bignicourt and Frignicourt, while his cavalry reserve under General von Jürgass and the detachment of Colonel Count Henckel were ordered to push from Vitry-le-Brûlé, Saint-Quentin and Changy to Châlons.[20]  Yorck proceeded in person during this time, with a thorough reconnaissance of the spot of Vitry. Following this reconnaissance and to conserve his strength, he needed to be able to withstand Macdonald, he resolved to attempt an attack on the spot "in three columns, on the night of the 2nd to 3rd, or, rather to say, at dawn."[21]  To cover his left, Yorck sent on the left bank of the Marne two squadrons of cavalry under the command of Captain Steinemann, who safely drove to Sompuis, where that officer united in the evening with the riders of Blücher.

But while Yorck was busy preparing orders for the night attack which he had thought of, General Katzler, posted at Vitry-le-Brûlé, received notice from General von Jürgass of Macdonald's approach.

The Duke of Tarente had indeed prescribed, the 2nd in the morning, for generals Molitor, Exelmans and Brayer, to push up Vitry; the Duke of Padoue to go to La Chaussée, sending, however, on the Roman road leading to Bar-le-Duc half of his cavalry which was to occupy in the evening Francheville, Saint-Jean-sur-Moivre, Coupéville and Le Fresne; finally to General Sebastiani to go to La Chaussée with the reserve batteries.  At 2 o'clock in the afternoon, the 11th Corps and the 2nd Cavalry marched on the road to Vitry, the 5th Corps and the 3rd Cavalry were in La Chaussée.[22]  The snow that was falling in large flakes that morning had ceased to darken the horizon and until that time had covered the march of the French cavalry, when, on clearing, the Prussian vedettes posted in front of Saint-Amand, saw at a short distance the head of the French column in march on Vitry.  Both sides avoided any serious commitment, and as Macdonald wrote to the Chief of Staff from La Chaussée, "we lost time in unnecessary positioning, despite my strict orders to push on Vitry.  As snow fell in large flakes, there was a fear of commitment, so that the enemy is only a mile from here and we took position in the village of La Chaussée, staggered over Pogny. This is how we spent the night and at daybreak we will attack quickly, if we are not prevented.  The intention of the enemy appears to be to maneuver to the right."

At 7 o'clock in the evening, everything was calm.[23]  This skirmish, though very insignificant in itself, would nevertheless exert a negative influence on the course of events.  Until this moment, in fact, Yorck, while dreading the arrival of Macdonald, thought only of fulfilling the mission which he had been charged and focused all his attention on Vitry, whose possession had, moreover, a real value to the Allies as it did for us.  Deciding to try his luck and take it under the cover of darkness, and if he could by surprise, he had already designated that his three infantry brigades camped close to Vitry, with enclosing the south and east sides, from Marolles up to Plichancourt, and where his infantry were out before dawn to throw themselves on the spot.  On the side of Châlons, his cavalry, supported by some small groups of infantry, ranged from Saint-Amand until just around Vitry-le-Brûlé.  Because of the plans nourished by Yorck, a general concentration of the corps, was indeed almost impossible, in any case it was not only unnecessary but even dangerous for him.  The French cavalry had an excellent opportunity to strike a blow. It could have, with some effort, enjoyed its momentary numerical superiority to force the passage, chase from Saint-Amand the small detachment of Colonel Count Henckel (5 squadrons, a battalion of fusiliers and half a battery), throw it back in disorder on the dragoons of Jürgass precisely when they were settling down, some in the camp, others in their new quarters, shoving all on the 2 battalions, 4 squadrons and 2 pieces that General von Katzler had sent to Vitry-le-Brûlé at the first news of the appearance of French riders, continued the pursuit briskly up to Vitry-le-Brûlé, giving a hand to the defenders of Vitry-le-François and forced Yorck to lift the siege.  One could also, if one wanted to be cautious, observe, after learning of the presence of the Prussians around Saint-Amand, just given the time for the corps in echelon behind to leave for La Chaussée, waiting for events without demonstration, without giving the alarm, and, marched next day to the cannon, in Vitry to fall on Yorck as soon as he drew up his attack against the place.  But it would have required that General Exelmans had been given an accurate account of the situation and the benefits he could reap.  Not content to remain calm and stop first by a small post of 40 Lithuanian Dragoons, followed by a squadron, then after a while by another squadron and a small company of jägers, he made the mistake having with him 12 squadrons, to refuse any combat, withdrawing on La Chaussée, thus revealing to Yorck the imminent danger which he had escaped and given him time and means, not only to support his cavalry advanced guard, but to alter his plans.

"A few hours ago," Yorck wrote to Schwarzenberg, "I was made aware of an enemy column that was marching from Châlons on Vitry.  Perhaps it is Marshal Macdonald who has been at Châlons for two days.  I immediately sent a brigade from this side and it tells me, while I send this report to Your Highness, that the enemy occupies La Chaussée in force, on the road from Châlons to Vitry.  My brigade has stopped on this point.  If they do not withdraw from La Chaussée tonight, I will attack it tomorrow morning and deliver an assault on Vitry, until I eject the enemy from La Chaussée on Châlons."[24]

A clumsy and  careless demonstration of Exelmans had caused serious consequences.  Yorck, now certain of the presence between Châlons and Vitry of Macdonald's corps, abandoned his plans against this place, and while they could either surprise and upset them while their corps were still scattered, or observe and wait to take him in the rear when he turned all his efforts and his attention against Vitry, the timidity of the leaders of the cavalry of Macdonald produced the defeat of La Chaussée and brought not only the fall of Vitry, but the loss of Châlons.  Fortune, we can see, was still smiling on the Allies.

The Prussian Ist Corps subsequently occupied, on the 2nd in the evening, the following positions: the detachment of Count Henckel at Aulnay-l'Aître, the cavalry of General von Jürgass at Saint-Amand, the advanced guard of General von Katzler at Saint-Quentin.  The 7th and the 8th Brigades, posted overnight at Plichancourt and Norrois, would eventually be used to support the troops of Jürgass and Katzler while the 1st Brigade (General von Pirch II) continued to observe Vitry and remained in positions ranged from Vauclerc to Frignicourt.

The Duke of Tarente in turn had sent the order to Exelmans to place his light cavalry at Aulnay, Ablancourt and in front of La Chaussée, the heavy cavalry at Omey; to Molitor to post a battalion in Aulnay, another in front of La Chaussée and the rest of his division in the village; to Brayer to establish his division behind Aulnay; to Sebastiani to occupy Omey and Pogny with the 5th Corps; to the Duke of Padoue to range from Sarry to Pogny, while a cavalry division would cover his left at Francheville and Dampierre.  Marshal also returned all baggage to Châlons and reserve artillery to Vésigneul and Saint-Germain.

The Duke of Tarente concluded his order by requiring to make frequent patrols and recommending to the cavalry and infantry to always be ready, one to ride on horseback and the other to take up arms.  "The artillery horses remained harnessed at La Chaussée, the others will only be saddled.  Before daybreak, the troops will be under arms, the vanguard mounted, the artillery ready to be put in battery."

Movements of other corps of the Army of Silesia.  --Throughout the morning the corps of the Army of Silesia, which we have not mentioned so far because they had not played a role on 2 February, had remained motionless in the positions they had taken the night before, and it was only after the conference held in the morning at the castle of Brienne, that Blücher's army began its movement to the right.  His cavalry crossed the Voire at the ford of Lassicourt towards the end of day, his infantry (Sacken and Olsufiev) marched by Rosnay on Braux-le-Comte (Braux-le-Grand) where it did not arrive until very late.  Blücher established at this point his headquarters.  The Russian infantry connect to his left with the cavalry of General Ilovaysky XII[25] who left from Maizières the 2nd in the morning, watching at some distance from the left bank of the Voire the retrograde motion of the corps of the Duke of Raguse.

The Prussian IInd Corps under the command of Kleist had marched on Metz in a single column, composed of its advanced guard, the 10th and 12th Brigades, taking the highway of up to Woippy.  Arriving at this point, the IInd Corps fell back to the right to bypass Metz without mounting it.  Then along the left bank of the Moselle, it quartered the night: the vanguard (Zieten) at Prény and Pagny-sur-Moselle; the 10th Brigade and the headquarters in and around Gorze; the 12th Brigade at Moulons and Longeau.  At Gorze Kleist received the order from Blücher requiring him to, instead of heading to Saint-Mihiel where the bridge was destroyed to move on Commercy to cross the Meuse and continue from there on Saint-Dizier, by Ligny and Stainville.

The same day, reports from the General Rusca,[26] who command the town of Soissons, from General Janssens to Marshal Kellermann and from Mayor Brunehamel to the Prefect of the Aisne signaled, some, the presence of the black hussars of Lützow at Carignan on their march to Margut, likewise the approach of a large party of cavalry coming to Carignan; others the appearance of the Cossacks and scouts far before the corps of Winzingerode at Maubert-Fontaine, south of Rocroy.

Orders and resolutions of the Emperor.  --While the Allies were losing valuable time in unnecessary movements and preparing for their failures in deciding to definitively separate their two main bodies, Napoleon had not been idle.  He had, as we have seen, begun by hiding the true direction of his retirement by taking a position with the corps of Marshal Marmont behind the Voire.  The rest of the day it was enough to see through the game of the Allies and now certain that they would imitate the maneuver which had been so fatal to Wurmser in 1796, he was already involved in using means for preparing a Castiglione or Lonato.  His genius, that prosperity which at first, seemed to have fallen asleep for a moment with the magnitude and suddenness of setbacks, was to wake up stronger and more wonderful than ever, as the danger of the growing threat and the difficulties multiplied around his small army.

The 2nd in the morning he wrote to the Duke of Feltre from Piney[27]: "I will be tomorrow at Troyes.  It is possible that the army of Blücher moved, between the Marne and Aube, near Vitry and Châlons.  From Troyes, I will act according to circumstances.  I will operate to delay the movement of the column, that I am told heads to Paris by Sens, or to return to maneuver on Blücher and delay his march."

In the morning, he informed the General Bordesoulle[28] of the movement that Marmont would carry out along the right bank of the Aube and Arcis had prescribed him to ensure the defense of Arcis, while sending a strong party of cavalry on the road from Arcis to Troyes to maintain communications.  Much later, when he sent his orders, he knew that the cavalry of General Piré, who had taken a position at Rouilly-Sacey, had sent a party to Creney on the road to Troyes and another party on Géraudot to observe the Cossacks who had appeared that morning in Piney and, hence, were returned to Géraudot where they had spent the night of the 1st to 2nd.  The discovery of Piré had signaled the presence of a fairly large body of Russian cavalry at Géraudot.[29]  Informed about the movements of the enemy, both on that side of Troyes and of Arcis, Napoleon soon (6 o'clock in the evening) ordered General de France to settle in Villiers-le-Brûlé with his Guards to Honor and the 10th Hussars, to occupy Brevon and scout Dienville.[30]

General Gérard was ordered to stand astride the road from Piney to Dienville to support the cavalry, and finally, the Dukes of Valmy and Tarente were to make every effort to contain the enemy and maintain communications between Châlons , Vitry and Arcis.

The news received by the Imperial Headquarters in the course of the evening was, in fact, reassuring:  Piré,[31] first, sent word to Grouchy that the 2nd Regiment of Chasseurs of the Guard and an infantry regiment were at Creney and that the Duke of Trévise was to be at Troyes.  On the other hand, Mortier was informed that General de France at Piney, with one of his battalions, 300 horses and a half-battery occupied Aubeterre, ensuring communications with Arcis-sur-Aube, that the bridge of La Guillotière was heavily barricaded and defended by 8 cannons and 3 battalions that had pushed a reconnaissance beyond Montiéramey in the morning and had seen little activity.

The Emperor had also completed his provisions with an action which shows how this extraordinary man kept his composure, his coolness and presence of mind among the most serious circumstances and difficulty.  After sending his orders to move, he had, upon his arrival at Troyes, dictated to the Chief-of-Staff the following agenda: "Led horses of the house of the Emperor, gentlemen of the marshals, officers of infantry and cavalry, will be used to carry the lame as and when we find them on the road."

"The Emperor recommends to the honor and the interest that each officer needs to save a comrade."[32]

Council of War of Brienne.  --Resolutions of the Allies.  --The Allies had been less quick to make resolutions.  They had initially lost the whole morning, and before deciding anything, it was thought necessary to examine and discuss in war council, a situation, that was never the less, very simple and clear.

A little after 9 o'clock in the morning, the Russian Emperor and King of Prussia, arrived at the chateau of Brienne, convened with Schwarzenberg, Blücher, Barclay de Tolly and their chiefs of staff at a conference in which one had to determine the subsequent course of operations.

In any other army, where the supreme command was actually given to a single chief, one could not even imagine convening a council of war after La Rothière.  The way forward was clear: it only remained to complete the annihilation of the defeated enemy, only to crush under an immediate and strong pressure the remnants of his army, only to change his retreat into a rout.  It was only necessary to continue to concentrate the efforts of both armies and to end once and for all the personal rivalries by really investing Schwarzenberg or Blücher with the authority of supreme command; but it was precisely on this point where one ran into insurmountable obstacles.  It was argued that the difficulty of marching and sustaining an army of 160,000 men had been the determining cause of the separation of the two armies, and besides, in the presence of the defeat inflicted the day before on the Emperor, either of the two armies, was strong enough alone to break the last resistance that might seek to oppose their progress and their triumphal march.

It would be a grave mistake to try to assign for consideration purely military reasons as determinants for the separation of armies when it was made necessary by the trends of essentially different sovereigns and their advisers, disagreements, jealousies and characters absolutely opposed to the two major generals.

In the council of war only the details of the measures already prepared in the instructions of 31 January could be settled upon and the decision to march on Paris by Troyes and the valley of the Seine with the Army of Bohemia, while Blücher, would move on Châlons, reunite the corps of Yorck, Kleist and Kapsewitch, and move towards the capital by the left bank of the Marne.  The VIth Corps (Wittgenstein) would, in this project, be used to establish the connection between the two armies with the help of the flying corps of the Prince Scherbatov, now passed under the command of General Seslavin, which was, moreover, quickly sent to the extreme left wing of the Army of Bohemia.

Following this council, Blücher received orders to stand, with the corps of his army which had been placed at La Rothière, by Braux-le-Comte towards Vitry.  Colloredo was going from Dienville on Troyes by Piney; the IIIrd and IVth Corps mission was to follow from Lesmont, the march of the main body of the retiring French army.  Wrede was to proceed from Lesmont on Pougy by Arcis-sur-Aube and Wittgenstein to march from Montier-en-Der in the same direction .[33]

The Battle of La Rothière however, had convinced the Allied sovereigns, as in Leipzig, that the Emperor could not stand against their united forces.

We lost at Lesmont, General von Bismarck himself takes care of saying, the enemy for several days, a circumstance all the more remarkable when one considers the numerous cavalry of the Allies, the multiplicity of bodies of scouts and partisans who scoured the theater on all sides.

It would have mitigated the serious drawbacks of the dispositions, already very defective in themselves, if by doubling the activity and energy, if by impressing on the pursuit an even greater vigor it had acted to regain the precious time that this unusual indecision had lost.  But instead of pursuing strongly the French army, the Allies, allowing themselves to stop at Lesmont and at Rosnay, permitted the Emperor to make a day's journey lead on them and so completely lose contact, that the 2nd in the evening, one again wondered at Allied General Headquarters whether to give credence to intelligence provided by Seslavin and which reported the French army was retreating on Vitry,[34] or whether it preferred the report of Ozharovsky[35] which indicated to the contrary, he made his retreat on Troyes.

The 2nd, in the evening, the rulers returned with Schwarzenberg and the General Headquarters to Bar-sur-Aube.  The IIIrd, IVth and Vth Corps, pausing between Brienne and Lesmont, waited for the restoration of the bridge. Colloredo spent the night at Vendeuvre, the reserves and Russian guards were spread from Brévonnes to Vendeuvre, Vauchonvilliers and Dolancourt.

"In sum," in the words of Prince Taxis[36] in his Tagebuch, "the day was not good for the Allies. In addition we had made the mistake of amassing and stopping so many people on a space so narrow and in a country already so exhausted that they lacked food from 3 February.  The troops also suffered greatly from the cold and snow."

The reluctance of the generals and sovereigns and the separation of the two armies furnished to the Emperor the means to get safely from a situation that any energy from the Allies would have made desperate.

In pondering the events of 2 February, one comes to think that Clausewitz had remembered the wrangling and indecision of that day when he wrote the following sentences:

"The data on the status and movements of the enemy are never enough to fully motivate the plans of a leader. Thousands of doubts come to attack him at the time of the execution of his plan.  He thinks of the dangers he will run, if his assumptions are unfounded.  He feels this fear which seizes man when performing important actions. Thence to the indecision that leads to half-measures, there is only one step."[37]

It is precisely this that the sovereigns and the Allied generals did not think wise to do at this point.  It was this separation of the two armies which the genius of the Emperor would take as the opportunity to undertake against Blücher the brilliant operations that we will study later, these half-measures designed to give a semblance of satisfaction with self-love, demands and the ambitions of a few Allied generals and guessed by Napoleon, that would provide for the moment something very close to the salvation of France.

As said by General von Grollmann, then a colonel and chief of staff of the corps of Kleist (Prussian IInd Corps), the mistakes of the Allies removed the solution of the crisis; but military history gained one of its finest pages of an example that provides  posterity that genius, strength of character, courage and perseverance of a great captain.


[1] STÄRKE, Eintheilung und Tagesbegebenheiten der Haupt-Armee im Monate Februar 1814. (K. K. Kriegs Archive., II, 1.)

[2] Gyulay to Prince Schwarzenberg, summary report on the events of 1 and 2 February. (Ibid., II, 34.)

[3] The troops in question of the division of Count Antoine Hardegg consisted of two squadrons of Schwarzenberg Uhlans, the Hussars of Archduke Joseph, four companies of Székelys (military frontier guards) and a rifle battalion. (STÄRKE, Eintheilung und Tagesbegebenheiten der Haupt-Armee (K. K. Kriegs Archive., II, 1.), Journal of Operations of the Crown Prince of Württemberg (IVth Corps), by General Count Baillet de Latour, Chief of Staff (Ibid., XIII, 56) and Wrede to Schwarzenberg (Ibid., II, 47).

[4] Major Prince Taxis detailed this as follows, in his Tagebuch (Ibid., XIII, 32): "At dawn, we knew that the enemy had retired.  Wrede pushed on Brienne and connected with the Prince of Württemberg.  Sacken (this is a mistake by the Prince, since, like all the troops of Blücher, Sacken remained motionless) pushed, meanwhile, from La Rothière towards Brienne.  The reserves did not take part in the action, and while the battle of La Rothière was certainly a victory, it would remain without results and without consequences.  Napoleon withdrew by Lesmont, crossed the Aube and went by Piney on Troyes, where he effected his junction with Mortier.  There only remained on the plain on the right (north and east of the city) about 1800 horses formed in close column and having some artillery with them. They fired a few shots, and they withdrew after firing."

[5] General of Cavalry Baron Frimont to General Count Wrede. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 47 b.)

[6] Tagebuch of Major Prince Taxis. (Ibid., XIII, 32.)

[7] HEILMANN, Wrede, p. 340.  --Here, moreover, are the terms in which the General Frimont expressed this matter in his report to Wrede: "At Rosnay, the enemy left took position to ensure the retirement of the right wing and held firm until that withdrawal was achieved.  The enemy, on retiring, had time to destroy the bridges. Immediately after the occupation of Rosnay, Count Antoine Hardegg sent parties of cavalry on the road to Arcis-sur-Aube." (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 47 b.)

[8] (STÄRKE, Eintheilung und Tagesbegebenheiten der Haupt-Armee im Monate Februar (K. K. Kriegs Archive., II, 1), and Journal of Operations of the IVth Corps by General Count Baillet de Latour (Ibid., XIII, 56).

[9] Gyulay to Schwarzenberg.  Summary relative to the Battle of La Rothière, l and 2 February 1814. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 34.)

[10] General Trapp to General Radetzky. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 71.)

[11] Report of Seslavin to Barclay de Tolly.

[12] General Ozharovsky to Barclay de Tolly, Villiers-le-Brûlé, 2 February, 6 o'clock at night.

[13] The Russian regiments, spoken of by General Milhaud in his report were: the regiments of dragoons and lancers of the Guard and the regiment of Don Cossacks, of the Guard.

[14] It is far from, we see, the 2,000 infantry Ozharovsky mentioned in his report.

[15] STÄRKE, Eintheilung und Tagesbegebenheiten der Haupt-Armee im Monate Februar (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 1) and Thurn to Schwarzenberg, Chamoy, 4 February 6 o'clock at night (Ibid., II, 81)

[16] Report by General Allix to the Minister of War, Sens, 3 February, 5 o'clock in the morning. (Archives of the War.)  --STÄRKE, Eintheilung und Tagesbegebenheiten der Haupt-Armee im Monate Februar (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 1) --Report of Ataman Count Platov to Prince Schwarzenberg, Villeneuve-le-Roy, 3 February (Ibid., II, ad. 120).

[17] Major Legros, commander in Montargis, to the Minister of War, Montargis, 6 February. (Archives of the War.)  --Report to Platov to Schwarzenberg, Villeneuve-le-Roy, 3 February (K. K. Kriegs Archiv. ad. II, 120), and STÄRKE, Eintheilung und Tagesbegebenheiten der Haupt-Armee im Monate Februar (Ibid., II, 1)

[18] The corps of Prince Eugene of Württemberg was posted at Longchamp, and division of Helfreich at Orconte.

[19] The detachment of Major General Rüdinger consisted at that time of the Grodno Hussars, three squadrons of the Sumy Hussars, a brigade of infantry belonging to the Russian 2nd Corps of Prince Eugene of Württemberg, and four pieces of horse artillery.

[20] Wittgenstein to Schwarzenberg, Saint-Dizier, 2 February. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 26 and ad. II 26.)  --STÄRKE, Eintheilung und Tagesbegebenheiten der Haupt-Armee im Monate Februar (Ibid., II, 1).

[21]Yorck to Schwarzenberg, Écriennes, 2 February, 11 o'clock in the evening. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 29.)

[22] Macdonald to the Chief of Staff and Kellermann from Châlons and La Chaussée, 2 February. (Archives of the War.)

[23] Relation of the Battle of La Chaussée, by General von Jürgass.

[24] Yorck to Schwarzenberg, Écriennes, 2 February, 11 o'clock in the evening. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 29.)

[25] The detachment of Ilovaysky XII consisted of two half-Cossack regiments Ilovaysky, Rebrikov and half of the regiment of Vlasov.

[26] General Rusca to the Minister of War, Soissons, 2 February; General Janssens to Marshal Kellermann, Mézières, 9 February; Mayor Brunehamel to the Prefect of the Aisne, 2 February. (Archives of the War.)

The Prefect of the Ardennes, 3 February, kept the Minister of War abreast of the these events, that he presented, however, in a somewhat different manner:

"The enemy has surprised," he wrote, "a post of 40 Polish lancers at Carignan in the night of the 29th to 30th.  It then appeared near Givet, falling back before a sortie from the garrison, moving on Philippeville from there, then Marienburg and on Couvin (country of Liege).  From Couvin, he went on to Rocroy driving before him a few gendarmes.  From Rocroy, he moved the 31st on Maubert-Fontaine, taking 140 conscripts, which were released by attacking the enemy on 2 February and chasing them to Launoy."

We will, moreover, have an opportunity to revisit these events when we deal with the march of corps of Bülow and Winzingerode from Belgium on Laon and operations undertaken during this movement, and in front of these two corps, by scouts of Chernishev and Tettenborn.

[27] Correspondence of Napoleon, no 21169.

[28] Chief-of-Staff to Bordesoulle, Brienne, 2 February. (Archives of the War.)

[29] General Piré to General Grouchy, Rouilly-Sacey, 2 February. (Archives of the War.)

[30] We have seen that the presence in these parts of General Ozharovsky had prevented the generals de France and Milhaud to complete the last part of this plan.  Grouchy, anxious about the fate of his cavalry, stationed at Villiers-le-Brûlé, proposed to the Chief-of-Staff to send, besides the cavalry of General de France, an infantry battalion, because, he said, "it is probable that the enemy will attack General Milhaud early tomorrow, and, if pushed, would result in disorder and confusion in Piney."

One dispatch from the Chief-of-Staff  to Grouchy, from Piney at 11 in the evening, ordered this general to move a lot of attention on Villiers-le-Brûlé and provide everything Milhaud would need to maintain its position. (Archives of the War.)

[31] Piré to General Grouchy, and the Duke of Trévise to General de France. (Archives of the War.)

[32] K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II. 177.

[33] STÄRKE, Eintheilung und Tagesbegebenheiten der Haupt-Armee im Monate Februar (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., II, 1).

[34] Report of Seslavin to Barclay de Tolly.

[35] Report of General Count Ozharovsky.

[36] Journal of Taxis (manuscript). (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., XIII. 32.)

[37] Before Clausewitz, de Retz had made the same thought: "Nothing," he wrote, " marks the solid judgment of a man as being able to choose between the major drawbacks."


Placed on the Napoleon Series: March 2012

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