THE GUARD DURING THE CAMPAIGN OF FRANCE, IN 1814.
From the statement of our sage tacticians, in this short campaign of such wonders, Napoleon often hung his fortune on a great hazardous blow. Not being capable to decide such a delicate question, we will abstain from it; but at least we will acknowledge that at no time, during any period, did the Emperor consistently show more of his supernatural resources of genius, the celerity of his movements, the constancy of his foresights, the power of his will and finally in the magnanimity of his audacity. Nothing, according to us, could be compared to him, if it was not however the untiring ardor of the soldiers of his Guard which, becoming aliens to all the needs of nature, without sleep, food, and preserving in the midst of all the deprivations an abnegation, a devotion pushed up to a worship, an incredible contempt for life, which seemed to multiply in front of the floods of enemies unceasingly reappearing, because they were always entangled with them and always victorious.
While the union* troops accumulated on right bank of the Rhine, the foreign diplomats still spoke about peace with Napoleon, undoubtedly in order to best mislead. They asked him to give up Germany, Spain, Holland and Italy; they required that France return within its natural limits of the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Rhine. Germany! …our soldiers had just evacuated it; Spain! … it had been returned to Ferdinand; Holland still formed part of the great Empire; Italy being occupied by our troops, was painful to give up; however Napoleon resigned himself to it, when the Allies declared that the negotiations would not stop the military operations. Thus, while renouncing Germany and Spain, by detaching from his cause Holland and Italy, Napoleon did not even obtain the certainty of preserving France from an invasion! … While waiting for all these questions to be solved by the congress, which was to meet in Châtillon, to negotiate peace on the basis, which the Allies gave for an ultimatum, it was necessary to fight.
*(Hilaire uses the term, “coalisées” throughout the 13th and 14th Books, here I’ve translated as union, to make distinct from use of term “coalition” found in earlier books. GMG)
The Emperor, to benefit from all the resources of the country, and to defend it against the invasion, showed an admirable activity; he saw with sorrow that he was not assisted. The lassitude with war appeared general. Moreover the people alone understood that an effort would be enough to save the fatherland and to conquer peace; but former comrades in arms of Napoleon, including the majority of the marshals of the Empire, or the chiefs of corps, all these men, we say, that he had showered with favors sighed for rest, and, either unwillingness, or exhaustion produced by age and tiredness, left them without strength or activity.
However, while in the midi (South) of France the marshal Soult contained the English on the Adour, in Italy Prince Eugene stopped the Austrians and fought gloriously on the Adige, all the corps of the French Army, including part of the Guard, which had remained on the Rhine, slowly fell back concentrating on Châlons, in Champagne, the point that Napoleon had chosen to be used as a pivot for his first operations. In accordance with their instructions, the generals left in the fortified towns the sick or tired soldiers, and those of the new levy, which were not equipped yet. These many garrisons were to form a reserve army that the Emperor intended to join together on the rear of the enemy once the moment seemed favorable to him.
The Union had set up more than one million two hundred and thousand men, of which six hundred thousand initially crossed the Rhine: they crossed it at various points, and in particular at Basel, thereby violating the neutrality of Switzerland. The remainder was charged with the invasion of Holland, with the blockade of the fortified towns of Germany, and the war in Italy. The troops, which invaded France formed two armies: the large one, divided into three corps, had as a chief the Prince of Schwarzenberg; Blücher commanded the Army of Silesia, also divided in three columns. The headquarters of the allied sovereigns followed these two large armies. The forces that Napoleon could oppose these masses did not rise, in addition to the garrisons of the fortified towns, to more than one hundred twenty thousand men. It counted on the levée en masse of the populace; but these levies did not produce the results that he expected: the peasants of the regions threatened by the enemy only took up arms.
Napoleon gave his orders so that on all the points of the border, in Holland and Belgium, defenses were established. He reorganized the National Guard of Paris, and accepted the oath of the Chiefs of Legion. By introducing the officers to Marie-Louise and the King of Rome, he told to them:
Indeed, giving regency to the Empress and King Joseph, his brother, he left Paris in the night of the 24 or 25 January, after having kissed his wife and her son for the last time! The service squadrons of the Guard had preceded him.
The boundaries, which we are imposed to in our work allow us to only briefly trace this memorable Campaign of France, we will say that it was especially worthy of the Guard. Unfortunately, we repeat, Napoleon did not find in his Generals qualities that offered as beautiful an example as them. He was victorious in all the battles where he directed the operations himself; but fortune often showed the contrary for his lieutenants.
*On the arrival of the Emperor at Châlons, confidence reappeared in the army. As of 24 January, the Royal Prince of Württemberg and General Gyulai had met to attack us at Bar-sur-Aube. Their forces had risen to more than thirty thousand men, while we had only thirteen thousand soldiers to oppose them. The attack started at midday. The French advance guard was initially pushed back to the bridge of Fontaines; but eight thousand men of the Old Guard and Italian division attacked the Austrians with as much impetuosity, as they had shown them. Major Keck fell in the fray, pierced by a bayonet. In spite of this sharp attack, the enemy managed to join under the protection of the brigade of Treneck and a formidable artillery, and flanked Bar-sur-Aube, with the intention to continue the attack the following day; but Marshal Mortier, having been certain that help would not arrive in time, benefited from the night to conduct a retirement which was to save the city and to spare the blood of brave men who, in spite of their intrepidity, had ended up succumbing under the weight of an army which grew bigger at every moment.
*We borrowed from the excellent Précis of the Campaign of 1814, published in 1831, in a work relating to the Imperial Guard, in the Delaunay bookseller, in Paris, the majority of the facts consigned in this campaign, but only those of the facts having special relations to this elite troop.
The Captain Hœuillet, commanding a company of the 2nd Regiment of Foot Chasseurs of the Old Guard, was appointed to cover the movement, while placing part of his soldiers as tirailleurs, while the others would continue to occupy the village of Fontaines. Hardly had he made his dispositions, when he was vigorously attacked. It was necessary to give up the position, or to be killed on the spot: Hœuillet gathered his troop, called his drummers, recommended to his chasseurs not to fire, advanced on the enemy driving forward, then had the charge drummed, and, at the head of only one hundred fifty men, succeeded in putting to rout more than five thousand Austrians. This feat of arms reflected the greatest honor upon Captain Hœuillet.
After having made all his dispositions for the combat of Saint-Dizier, Napoleon fixed the attack at that point for the next morning, January 26.
The cavalry of General Milhaud was therefore put moving on Saint-Dizier, where General Landskoi was in greatest safety. The French cavalry surprised him in his bivouacs. The Duhesme division, which followed them closely, reached the enemy infantry at Saint-Dizier, and made some prisoners. Napoleon entered the city the 27th with them, at eight o’clock, from where he gave the order to continue to pursue the Union in the directions of Joinville and d’Éclaron. The Marshals Marmont and Victor, as well as the Young Guard, held a position in front of Saint-Dizier.
The 28th, Napoleon left in Saint-Dizier Marshal Marmont, with the first corps of cavalry, and then directed his army on Montiérender, by Vassey. The Marshal Victor, preceded by the cavalry of General Milhaud, followed the road of Joinville up to Ragecourt, where he took the crossroads of Vassey. The cavalry and the infantry of the Guard followed the direct road of Saint-Dizier to Vassey, on the left of the Duval forest. The divisions Dufour and Ricard, under the command of General Gerard, left Vitry to flank the right of our army. The headquarters of Napoleon was placed in the evening at Montiérender.
The Russian and Prussian armies went diagonally along the Aube, to join the army, between Bar-sur-Aube and Brienne, and to thus prevent the movements of Napoleon. For his part, the Chief of Staff Berthier, as soon as he arrived in Ligny, gathered the marshals. In this conference, it was decided that Victor would hold at Ligny and the Bar, until the two divisions of the Young Guard arrived which they awaited from Anvers.*
*Two other divisions of this same Guard were organized in Metz, two others in Brussels, two others in Paris, and in Sarrelouis.
Blücher, learning from his scouts of the appearance of the French Army at Vassey and Montiérender, hastened to concentrate all his forces close to Brienne. About midday a French officer was brought to him that the Cossacks had taken between Vitry and Arcis. He was carrying important dispatches, announcing that Napoleon, at the head of his army, had decided to take the offensive by Saint-Dizier, and of an order addressed to Marshal Mortier that prescribed to this last to leave with the Guard, Troyes and the Aube, to approach the right wing of the French Army. Blücher resolved at once to thwart this movement; but at the time when the Prussian general was going to take his measures, he learned that we advanced on Brienne. It was three hours after midday when the action started.
The Generals Lefebvre-Desnouettes, Milhaud and Grouchy attacked the improvised enemy advance guard, which covered the approaches of Brienne. After several charges, carried out on the right of the road by the cavalry of the Guard, the height of Perthe were taken; Ney, at the head of six battalions, went in serried columns on the city, by the path of Mézières, while General Château, chief of staff of Marshal Victor, turning by the right, entered into the park of the château, by the favor of the inequalities of the ground.
The grenadiers surprised the Prussian staff at the table. The Field-Marshal Blücher, General Gneisenau, his major chief of staff, and other senior officers, not believing that the French were so close to them, only hade time to mount their horses and race at full gallop to the first posts of General Sacken.
Napoleon then directed a column on the road to Bar-sur-Aube, which appeared to have to been used for the retreat of the enemy.
The attack continued always: it was, on both sides, as full of resistance as it was obstinate. Engaged against greater forces, the division of the Young Guard, under the command of General Decouz, and a brigade of the division Meunier, fought on desperately; so also the enemy left the ground strewn with dead and wounded. This last failure decided the retirement of Blücher, which the burning city favored: this retirement took place at eleven o'clock in the evening.
In the strong action, a blow of a lance took off the hat of the major general Berthier. General Lefebvre-Desnouettes, after having shown the greatest intrepidity at the head of the Horse Chasseurs of the Guard, was wounded and thrown from his horse. In the middle of the darkness of the night, an artillery battery of the Guard, following the movement of a column of cavalry, which went ahead to push back a charge of the enemy, fell behind and was taken. When our gunners realized the ambush into which they had fallen, they were formed into squadron, attacked the enemy, and saved their horses by this act of resolution; nevertheless they lost in this engagement fifteen men, killed as well as wounded or made captive.
The combat of Brienne had led the Allies to try a set battle: the great movements which took place in the enemy lines sufficiently indicated this; seeing this Napoleon, therefore, called back Marshal Ney, who was moving for Lesmont, and commanded the Rothembourg division, bivouacked on the heights of Brienne, to be ready to move ahead.
Around one o’clock in the afternoon, the enemy columns appeared before our posts, in the plain of La Rothière and the wood of Beaulieu. The action began at once with a strong cannonade. The Prince of Württemberg cut through a path crossing the forest of Éclance, and opened the battle by seizing the hamlet of Chauménil. At the same moment, the Bavarians, emerging by the forest of Soulaine, joined the Royal Prince of Württemberg, who had made his junction with the Count of Wrede. Napoleon, learning of this attempt, left in person, with part of artillery of the Guard. Attaching a great importance to the possession of Chauménil, he ordered this village to be retaken, and going directly towards the center, where his presence was necessary. Two hours had been employed in maneuvers and in successive attacks on this point, without the French being able to obtain a marked advantage; finally Chauménil remained in the possession of the enemy.
La Rothière being the key of the position of the French Army, Field Marshal Blücher was determined to carry it by a strong stroke, because the possession of this village was going to determine the success of the battle, around which for three hours the fighting had become general.
Resistance continued to be vigorous in La Rothière and Dienville. With the setting sun, the French cavalry penetrated up to the center of the masses of the Russian infantry, which it forced to crumple. In this disorder, the Field-Marshal Blücher ordered his cavalry to turn the left of the French by a fast movement, and to attack them on their rear; at the same time, the infantry of Sacken received the order to attack us on the right side. These maneuvers, supported by the darkness, had the result, which the Allies hoped. The French cavalry was charged up to Brienne-le-Vieux, where the Russians entered pell-mell upon us.
Napoleon, at the head of the cavalry of General Colbert and his service squadrons, ordered a charge, which stopped the progress of the Allies. Marshal Oudinot retraced his steps in haste, at the head of two divisions of the Young Guard, and again took the offensive. Strong columns of infantry and flying batteries of the Guard were directed on La Rothière. Napoleon, at the head of his Guard, renewed his attacks three times with such vigor, that he finally seized the church and some houses, while the Russian grenadiers occupied the remainder of the village. The carnage became dreadful; General Decouz, an officer of known worth, commanding the 2nd Division of the Young Guard, was dangerously wounded. General Baste, who just recently commanded the seamen of the Guard, fell dead, after prodigious acts of valor. This brave officer had given up his rank of rear admiral, to fight on the ground. His loss was felt deeply among all the soldiers of navy, who had been able to appreciate his rare qualities.
The battle was prolonged into the night. Around ten o’clock in the evening, Berthier, crossing the French lines to visit the pickets, found the two armies so close to one another, that several times he took the sentinels of Allies for those of the French. Finally, after the most obstinate resistance by both sides, the village of La Rothière was yielded to the Russians.
Thus ended this battle of La Rothière, a battle where the allies had an advantage disputed a long time by the valor shown by an army reduced to a few thousands of old soldiers, but who, by following the example of their chiefs, multiplied to obtain a victory which was to decide the fate of the campaign.
The French Army was in too tenuous a situation for Napoleon to be able to grant them a rest, which it greatly needed. After a short halt at Brienne, it was started on Lesmont, on February 2nd, a great morning. In only a few days, the French Army was going to avenge its failure at La Rothière by the brilliant engagements of Champ-Aubert and Montmirail.
On February 3rd, our army arrived under the walls of Troyes, where it found the bridge of Guillotière occupied by the Michel division. Marshal Mortier, who held this city since January 27, had left there the 30th, to go to Arcis; but informed that the enemy occupied Bar-sur-Seine, he went back there the 31st; ignorant of the intentions of Napoleon was to attach to it. Our army took, on February 5th, the following positions: Old Guard, foot and horse, Troyes; Young Guard, at Pont-Aubert; Marshal Victor, at Pont-Sainte-Marie; the dragoons of General Milhaud, at Bouranton; the light cavalry, at Crenoy. The division of the Guards of Honor of General Defrance, in Tennelière, covered the road of Bar-sur-Aube. The Marshal Marmont arrived the same day at Arcis, where he rejoined the provisional division of fifteen hundred cuirassiers, dragoons, chasseurs and lancers of the Guard, organized at Meaux by General Bordesoulle, who had been there for three days; the Ricard division was placed in-between at Aubeterre; but these provisions were soon to be changed. The Marshals Marmont and Ney, who were in Sézanne the 7th, received the order to be ready to attack the enemy the following day, this order surprised these marshals, who, knowing the ground, considered it impossible to bring up their artillery in this direction.
The general, who was commander in chief of this arm, warned the Emperor that it was impossible to continue the movement by the forest of Traconne.
He was obeyed: the soldiers hitched themselves the guns and dragged them by hand; but so much of this effort would have become useless if the Mayor of Barbonne had not managed to gather five hundred plow horses, which pulled the trains.
The 10th, at the break of day, the troops met in Pont-Saint-Prix, except for the Michel division and of Horse Grenadiers of the Guard, who were obliged to remain in Sézanne, because of the obstruction which reigned on the road.
Marshal Marmont, having the cavalry of Doumerc at the head of his column, arrived around nine o’clock in the morning on the height which dominates the valley of Petit-Morin, and pushed his pickets up to the middle of the avenue of Baye, where they were forced to stop, not being able to be supported by artillery or by infantry, which had the sorrow of slogging their way along mud filled routes.
Napoleon, arriving at this moment, ordered the attack. At once General Lagrange, followed-up by the Ricard division and the Guard, crossed the marshes of Saint-Gond, seizing Pont-Saint-Prix, and pushing the Russians up to below Baye, where their masses are deployed under the protection of their artillery; but soon the Lagrange division, climbing the plateau which extends between Baye and Bannay, arrived, moving on the right of the wood by where the Russians had emerge. Hit on the front and the side, the General Olssufiev withdrew himself and extended onto the plain, which he occupied. Marshal Marmont attacked these two villages immediately. The 4th Light seized Baye; but the Pelleport brigade was pushed back in front of Bannay. Napoleon, witnessing this failure, assembled the troops of the 6th Corps on the plateau, ordering the infantry of Marshal Ney to follow him and to deploy themselves on the plain, at the same time as he directed all his artillery on Bannay.
General Olssufiev, deprived of cavalry, seeing himself strongly attacked, concentrated his forces on Champ-Aubert, with the intention to beat a retreat; but already the cavalry of the Guard was spread in the plains located between Baye and Champ-Aubert, and turned the Russians by cutting off the road of Châlons to them. Seeing himself prevented, the latter was stirred to action, and moved to withdraw by the road of Épernay: Marshal Marmont took Champ-Aubert from them, while our cuirassiers, charging the right of the Russians, drove back them into a wood and lake, between the roads of Épernay and Châlons. Consequently the combat became true butchery. The French Army was spread out as skirmishers in wood; and, in the heat of the action, it took few prisoners; but our cavalry took considerable spoils: twenty of their caissons and pieces of ordnance, the general in charge Olssufiev, two other generals and forty officers, as well as eighteen hundred Russian prisoners, were the trophies of this day. Nearly twelve hundred men remained on the battle field; the pond called le Désert swallowed for its part more than two hundred: hardly fifteen hundred Russians arrived, by the protection of the night, to reach the Fère-Champenoise. The French Army lost from three to four hundred men, killed or wounded; with the number of the latter was General Lagrange, taken by a shot to the head.
After this glorious day, Napoleon established his headquarters at Champ-Aubert, and the infantry of the Guard bivouacked on the battlefield. General Nansouty, with the dragoons and the lancers of the Guard, followed-up by a brigade of the Ricard division, also of the Guard, went at midnight to Montmirail, from which it drove out five to six hundred Cossacks, and made a hundred prisoners of them.
On February 11, around five o’clock in the morning, Napoleon left Marshal Marmont in Étoges, to observe the enemy corps, and put his army moving towards Montmirail. The horse grenadier division of the Guard, which had been delayed by the difficulty of the roads, joined General Nansouty, already in position on the heights of Montcoupeau. The infantry of the Guard and the 2nd brigade of the Ricard division put into motion one hour before daybreak preceded by the division of Horse Chasseurs of the Guard, under the command of General Lefebvre-Desnouettes. Napoleon arrived at ten o’clock at Montmirail. He found General Nansouty maneuvering to delay the march of General Sacken, whose columns heads already were appearing in front of Renauderie. Napoleon, suspecting that the Russians wanted to emerge by this village, placed the Ricard division there, which was under the command of Marshal Ney. Hardly had our troops established themselves there, when General Sacken attacked them. The village of Marchais was taken and retaken three times. The Russians showed as much eagerness, to seize it, as the deployed French bravery to defend it. The action had lasted for more than five hours and the two armies were still in the same position. The night approached. Napoleon finally decided to undertake a serious attack without awaiting the remainder of his troops. He ordered General Ricard to yield the ground on the side of Marchais, to start the enemy thinking that it should reinforce its attacks on this point and move men from its center. He gave at the same time the order to General Nansouty to go, with his cavalry, on the right; while sixteen battalions of the Old Guard, under the command of General Friant, newly arrived from Sézanne, were formed in a single column along the road, to attack the center of allies; each battalion spaced one hundred steps apart. The artillery arrived also, and soon Marshal Mortier appeared, with sixteen other battalions of the Young Guard. This elite troop emerged by Montmirail; attacking the center, or l’Épine-aux-Bois, where the success of the day was going to be determined. Forty pieces of cannon defended the approaches to them; the hedges had been furnished with a triple rank of tirailleurs; battalions of infantry were there, to support those. Napoleon gave the signal: General Friant sprang at once towards l’Épine-aux-Bois, at the head of the battalions of the Guard; Marshal Mortier went with six battalions of the Young Guard on the right of the attack of General Friant; and, with the heavy cavalry, General Nansouty extended on the right of the Russians, thus giving General Sacken fear of seeing his line of retreat cut. Remaining the master of the village of Marchais, the general felt the need to pull troops from his center to reinforce his right. The Old Guard, benefiting from this clumsy move, sprang on the farm of the Haute-Épine and approached the Russians at double time: Marshal Ney marched first. With the appearance of the bearskins, the terrified
Russian tirailleurs withdrew themselves en masse, which was attacked at once. The fray became bloody; the artillery could not fire any more, the shooting was appalling; but success was still in the balance: perhaps even doubtful if the lancers, the dragoons and the horse grenadiers of the Guard, commanded by General Guyot, had not been thrown on the rear of the masses of Russian infantry. Attacked and turned unexpectedly, those were soon broken and put to rout. Our infantry, benefiting from the movement of the cavalry, fell up on the enemy, who could find no other safety but in flight, and abandoning his position, his guns, and his baggage. At the same time Marshal Mortier, who, with his six battalions of the Young Guard, supported the attack of the Old, arrived, taking the village of Fontenelle, and taking at the same time from the enemy six pieces of cannon out of a battery.
Arriving at the height of the l’Épine-aux-Bois, the division of the Guards of Honor made a left turn on the village of Marchais, while Marshal Lefebvre, at the head of two battalions of the Old Guard, marched ahead on the village, so that those who defend it found themselves taken between two fires. All the Russians that were there were put to the saber, killed or made captive; in less than fifteen minutes, a deep silence succeeded the noise of the cannon and the rolling fire of the muskets. The Russians: generals, officers, soldiers, infantry, cavalry, artillery, withdrew themselves precipitately and pell-mell by the road to Château-Thierry. The night did not make it possible to pursue the enemy, who besides was protected in his escape by new Prussian brigades coming to its aide. The combat ended at eight o'clock in the evening. The French Army was not committed in its entirety and experienced only a light loss, compared to that of the Russians.
The following day, the 12th, our army was put in motion: Marshal Mortier, with the divisions Colbert and Michel, of the Guard, whose General Christiani took the command, was set in motion at nine o’clock at Fontenelle, on the direct road to Château -Thierry; Napoleon, with the remainder of the Guard, took, at ten o’clock, that of la Ferté.
The enemy supported his retirement with eight battalions, which, arriving late, had not taken part yet. Coming to the village of Coquerets, the Russians wanted to defend the position which is behind the brook, and to thus cover the road of Château -Thierry; but a battalion of the Old Guard instantly went on the Petite-Noue, crushed their skirmishers and pushed them back, from position to position, up to the heights of Nesle, in front of Château -Thierry: there, Napoleon attacked them on the front by six battalions of the Guard, which occupied the plain; at the same time, divisions of cavalry of Generals Defrance and Laferrière maneuvered on the right, and went between Château -Thierry and the Russian rear-guard, protected by its cavalry, which sprang from all sides on the left to oppose ours. In vain it endeavored to stop them by several charges; it was crushed and dispersed. At the same time General Letort, with the dragoons of the Guard, fell upon the sides and on the rear of the eight Russian battalions, formed in square, and made a horrible carnage among them.
Prince William had gone to the suburbs of Château -Thierry, in order to protect the retreat of this disorganized mass: batteries placed on the main road of Châlons to Paris, between the trees of the part of the city called la Lenée, fired on our cavalry, which chased the fugitives; but soon General Guyot, with the service squadron of horse grenadiers, and two battalions of foot grenadiers of the Guard, commanded by General Petit, made useless the efforts of this Prince.
With the appearance of our grenadiers, the suburbs of the left bank were evacuated precipitately. In vain the enemy barricaded the streets with his baggage, our advance-guard overthrew all that opposed its passage: William only had time to set up a battery of eight pieces of cannon, under the protection of which he managed to maneuver his retirement.
Napoleon laid down that evening in the small château of Nesle, in the middle of the bivouacs of the Guard, which extended on to the plain, in front of Château-Thierry.
As of the break of day, the French occupied themselves repairing the bridges on the Marne, in order to follow the enemy without delay. Napoleon, at the head of his army, advanced through the entry of the stone bridge which separates the suburb from the city, and which the day before the enemy had cut.
On seeing the French, the inhabitants ran out on the other side of the bridge: and in their joy, burst forth with acclamations. The rich, the poor, old men, women and children competed with each other as they worked to repair this bridge; the largest trees were toppled with ease, and, after five hours of effort, it was solid enough so that the artillery could pass there at last. As soon as it was able, the infantry of the Young Guard crossed on the double. The Union had placed their batteries on the right bank of the Marne, at the top of the hill known as la Montagne blanche, which dominates Château-Thierry; but seeing us passing the Marne and coming at them, they moved away as fast as possible. The combat and the capture of Château-Thierry were not, so to speak, the completion of the Battle of Montmirail.
While Napoleon gained this victory over the Allies, Marshal Marmont was engaged with Blücher. This last, after having strongly pushed the rear-guard of the Marshal to Champ-Aubert, was placed, as well as General Ziethen, between the village of Étoges and Fromentières.
Napoleon, informed on the 13th in the evening of the movement of the Prussian Field-Marshal, did not hesitate to make an about face, to assist Marmont, leaving Marshal Mortier, with the Christiani, Colbert and Defrance divisions in observation in front of the beaten corps. He gave the order to the Friant division and the cavalry of General Saint-Germain to go at once to take the field at Vieux-Maisons at Montmirail, where it arrived on February 14th, at four o'clock in the morning, with the corps of Marshal Ney and the remainder of the cavalry of the Guard. All these troops had arrived at Montmirail around eight o’clock in the morning, at the moment when Marmont, pushed by the Prussian advanced-guard, was withdrawn by the road of Châlons: the retrograde movement of the Marshal stopped at once, and the offensive was taken again.
The Prussians already occupied Vauchamps. The Marshal Marmont accepted the order to attack this village, and General Grouchy, under the command which had passed General Saint-Germain, accepted the order, from him, to turn the position on the right, while passing by the wood: the Foot and Horse Guard was formed in reserve on the main road. Blücher, informed that our cavalry was maneuvering to flank him, and that our infantry had been seen on the left, moved at once by way of Sézanne on Montmirail.
But the danger, which Blücher seemed to fear, did not threaten him on this side. The French column seen by his scouts was the Laval division, which, detached from Sézanne by Marshal Oudinot, was still too distant to take part in the action.
Enemy infantry, who had thrown everything into a small wood, located in advance defended Vauchamps. At ten o'clock in the morning the division Ricard, of the Guard, was charged to take this wood. The first brigade approached on the right; the second attacked the front, in serried column on the left of the road. The latter was pushed back, and the enemy, encouraged by this success foolishly left Vauchamps to pursue it. Marshal Marmont, not having any other cavalry at the hand, launched his escort squadron on the Prussians, which brought them back to the entrance of the village. Such a weak attack did not carry any reason for alarm; but Napoleon, perceiving the isolation of this infantry, benefited from the disorder, which the horsemen of the Marshal had caused to order those of General Lion to charge, at the head of four service squadrons of the Guard. A battalion was thrown into the farm on the left of the village; the remainder was sabered under the eyes of the Union. Already our cavalry had taken a Prussian battery, which was running away, when, charged in turn by a Prussian regiment, it was obliged to give it up. Two companies of Foot Chasseurs of the Old Guard approached the farm where the Prussian battalion had taken refuge and captured all of them.
While this occurred on the left, another combat raged on the right between the cavalry of the Guard and the Prussian cuirassiers joined together with the hussars of this nation. After several charges, the latter were thrown back in disorder by the divisions Lefebvre-Desnouettes and Laferrière-Lévêque on the extreme left of the line of infantry, which, in fear of being broken through, was formed at once in squares.
All the French Army was moving. The Lagrange division, in column by regiment, advanced on the right of the road; a little further, on the left, followed the Ricard division; then the infantry of the Young Guard arrived, under the command of Marshal Ney, on the right of which that of the Old Guard went; finally, behind, hastened the Leval division, which, not having seen enemy since its departure from Spain, burned to come into action.
Blücher, not having enough cavalry to cover his retirement, formed his infantry in squares, while placing between each one of them some batteries: the remainder of the artillery was returned to the rear.
The ground over which this general was to withdraw himself was open up to Champ-Aubert, except some wood thickets, among which he threw jägers, with the intention to protect them from the attacks of our cavalry. The retrograde movement was carried out in good order up to Janvilliers; but his squares had hardly passed this village, when, in a vast field, on the left of the road, General Grouchy, with the first corps of cavalry, fell on them. Approximately a thousand men laid down their arms at the first appearance; two battalions, which were withdrawn into the village, were encircled and taken; four pieces of cannon and five caissons were captured. Benefiting from the disorder, which this sharp blow caused, the service squadrons of the Guard charged in their turn the other squares; several held firm. The Horse Grenadiers of the Guard, initially badly mauled by one of these squares, faired better against a second, that they pierced.
After this failure, Blücher continued his retirement in squares, being helped especially by the rolling land that protected him.
As soon as Napoleon realized this new tactic of the enemy, he ordered General Drouot to advance all the artillery of the Guard; this was carried out with such a success that, in two hours, the allied masses were under fire from the grapeshot of thirty cannon mouths, without being able to put more than six pieces out of a battery to defend themselves.
As bloody as this pursuit had become, it was only one diversion destined to delay the march of the Army of Silesia: General Grouchy prepared a more terrible lesson for him. As soon as he had carried out his first charge, expecting that the enemy was going to continue its march through Étoges, he promptly left, and went through wood, to place himself across the main road, in front of Champ-Aubert. He had given the order to General Coin, commanding his artillery, to follow him with two light batteries; unfortunately the difficulty of the roads delayed the arrival of these batteries; if they had arrived in time, it would have been the end of the Army of Silesia.
The day fell, and Blücher continued his sorrowful retreat; when, at the command of General Grouchy, the Generals Doumerc, Bordesoulle and Saint-Germain fell like lightning on the Prussians. This charge, driven home, broke their lines and put them in disorder. The cries of the winners, those of the vanquished redoubled the ardor of the soldiers who marched forward under the eyes of Napoleon: the cannonade ceased. The cavalry of the Guard arrived at a trot and carried the terror and death among the enemy ranks to its completion. The Prince August of Prussia, Field-Marshal Blücher, the Generals Kleist and Kapzevitsch, carried away by the fugitives, who were crushed under the hooves of the horses. Our cuirassiers, sabering without resistance, would have undoubtedly passed their swords through to the last man of the Prussian infantry, if Marshal Ney, fearing to see them lose their way in wood, had not sounded the recall.
This circumstance held joy for Blücher, because it gave him hope that he would be able to join together the remains of his army behind of Étoges.
However, after a short halt at Champ-Aubert, Marshal Marmont, with the 6th Corps of infantry and the cavalry of General Doumerc, surprised the Udom division at the end of the park of Étoges. Only one charge of our cuirassiers was enough to put it to rout. The Marshal Marmont, benefiting from the fear produced by this attack in the darkness, pushed the Lagrange division into Étoges: the 1st Regiment of Seamen entered there with bayonets fixed, and making Prince Worosow a captive, with five hundred men, and taking eight pieces of cannon with him.
Such was the combat of Vauchamps, in which, without having lost more than six hundred soldiers, the French Army seized fifteen pieces of cannon, ten flags, and made the enemy experience a loss of four thousand men, killed as well as wounded, and two thousand prisoners. This day bestowed the greatest honor on the cavalry of the Guard, and covered General Grouchy with glory, whose serried maneuvers decided the victory. The General Lion, of the Guard, was wounded; Major-General Berthier, General Bertrand, the Marshals Lefebvre and Ney, were constantly at the head of the columns. The ardor of the soldiers was highly excited by the presence of Napoleon, who did not leave the battlefield for a moment.
After this combat, the Emperor and Marshal Ney submitted themselves to sleep, with the Guard, in Montmirail.
The remains of the Army of Silesia continued, during the night, their retirement on Châlons.
As soon as the defeat of Blücher was known, Prince Schwarzenberg ordered all to move on the capital, in order to draw the attention of Napoleon to this point and to force him to give up the pursuit of the Army of Silesia; but the Austrian General in Chief had hardly started to carry out this project, that the Emperor, who, also, had some awareness of the situation, hadn’t believed it necessary to change his march to prevent this meeting. For this purpose, he left in Étoges Marshal Marmont with the 6th Corps of infantry and the 1st of cavalry, to observe Blücher, below Châlons; and General Grouchy, with eight hundred horsemen of the 2nd Corps, and the Laval division, at Ferté-sous-Jouarre, in order to be able to support Marmont or Mortier, who watched the corps of Winzingerode, placed around Villers-Cotterets.
These provisions decreed, Napoleon started from Montmirail with the Guard, on February 15th, rested the same day at Ferté-sous-Jouarre, and the 16th in Guignes: the infantry making this way in stages, the cavalry going day and night: thirty-six hours had not passed, when this meeting of the available forces was carried out, so to speak, under the eyes of the large enemy army.
Arriving at Guignes, Napoleon, after having rejoined the dragoon division of General Trelliard, coming from Bayonne, and approximately eleven hundred old grenadiers and chasseurs of the Guard, drawn from the Army of the Pyrenees and the depots of the Guard, started to move.
Our army, electrified by its last successes, burned for action: it did not have to wait a long time. The 17th, at the break of day and as the Emperor had announced it, our troops were seen moving on Mormant, and discovered the enemy at the height of l’Étage: it was the Count Pahlen who was withdrawn on the main road, his flanks covered, on the right, by two regiments of Cossacks, on the left, by four squadrons of lancers, with two squadrons in reserve. Marshal Victor spread himself in front of the village of Péqueux, the reserve of Paris in the center of the 2nd Corps of infantry; General Kellermann, with the dragoon division of L’Héritier and Trelliard, took the right of this line; General Milhaud, the left, with the divisions Piré and Briche; the 11th and 7th Corps of infantry, which then arrived, formed the second line: the Guard had remained in reserve at Guignes.
Napoleon, judging the weakness of the Russian corps well, had turned back, at double speed to meet it; Marshal Victor put himself moving on Mormant, while the Generals Milhaud and Kellermann flanked this village. The Subervie brigade sabered the first of Russian jägers, while General Piré, with his second brigade, went at a trot on the Russian squadrons, that General Kellermann was about to reach on his side.
This attack had every success, and Mormant was hardly disputed. The French Army pursued that of the Allies up to Valjouan, where a combat took place, which was an encore of its success. In this combat, a squadron of cuirassiers, commanded by General Bordesoulle, crushed three hundred men in a moment. This squadron was made up of young conscripts who, had only first ridden a horse eight days before, and saw the enemy for the first time: these young people, that courage alone guided, beginners in the art of the war, did not make a single captive; it was even only with great pain that their general managed to tear their hands off an Austrian officer, who was already wounded.
Various actions and a combat at Montmirail led us to Montereau, which was to be another illustrious example of our arms, in spite of the innumerable forces, which we had to fight.
Napoleon, informed that Marshal Victor was not in Montereau, as his instructions prescribed, ordered, for the following day February 18, a combined attack on this position. For this purpose, General Pajol received the command to push away all that was before him, and to attack the enemy on the left, while the 2nd Corps and the reserve of General Gerard approached it on the right.
The General Château arrived in front of Montereau at ten o'clock in the morning; but as of nine o’clock, General Bianchi had taken the position, with two Austrian divisions and a Württemberg division, on the heights, in front of Montereau, thus covering the bridges and the city. General Château, son-in-law of Marshal Victor, an officer of rare intrepidness and greater merit, opened the attack and captured, under the most deadly fire, the village of Villaron, defended by four battalions of the Union; but after having held out there for the space of half an hour, he was driven out by enemy artillery with losses. The Duhesme division replaced it and attacked in its turn this perilous post, while General Château, leaving one of his brigades in reserve, sought, with the other, to flank the heights of Surville, and to slip towards the bridges by the road of Paris. The enemy, seeing in front of them the column of General Duhesme, did not occupy themselves with General Château any more; and, redoubling its fire, ruined his attack; but the latter, after having crushed all that it found in its path, finally arrived at the bridge, where he was mortally wounded. However General Gerard, by skilful dispositions, still contained the enemy, when at two o’clock, Napoleon, arrived at the gallop with the service squadrons of the Guard, attacking the position defended for so long a time. At the same moment, General Digeon, with two batteries of the Guard, suddenly striking like a thunderbolt and carried death into the enemy ranks… all at once the cartridges came to a halt. During this time, the enemy had planned to blow up the bridge of the Seine; but the mine having only made what is called entonnier sur clef, General Ducoëtlosquet, at the head of the 7th Chasseurs, crossed it at a gallop, driving back the fugitives into the city, and entered pell-mell among them, at the same time as the Duhesme division followed it at a charge, laying low all that it met.
The ardor of the troops guided by Generals Pajol and Gerard did not make it possible for the Foot Guard to contribute; its old brave men, according to their habit, murmured about not having been able to take their share of the glory on this day.
In the night, Napoleon established his headquarters at the Château of Surville: the Guard was quartered in Montereau.
The combat of Mouy, of Mèry, of Fontvannes, of Dolancourt, of Bar, of Meaux, of Lizy and of Gué-à-Trème followed one after another quickly, and led the French up to Troyes, where they entered on February 25.
It was in this city that Napoleon, staring at the movements of the two large allied armies, realized that that of Silesia, being cut off for the second time, was going to go into the valley of the Marne. As of this moment, he was prepared to go against it. Consequently, he left Troyes the 27th, and the same day slept in Herbisses, two miles beyond Arcis-sur-Aube, with all the cavalry of the Guard and the Friant division.
The 28th, all the troops of the Guard were established between the Ferté-Gaucher and Esternay. On the way, the chasseurs and the lancers of the Guard, amounting to four thousand, having met around the Fère-Champagne, the light troops of General Tettenborn, took up the chase.
The march from Esternay to Jouarre was dreadful. Napoleon could arrive only in the extreme darkness of the night, with the cavalry and the head column of the Guard. The weather was abominable; the paths were impassable; the artillery remained bogged down between Rebais and Jouarre, and could only be withdrawn the next morning.
The Emperor, having completed the construction of a bridge, crossed the Marne to his army on March 3, at two o'clock in the morning.
Informed that the village of Rocourt, on the road of Soissons, was occupied by a corps of Prussian cavalry, General Nansouty attacked with the regiment of the Polish lancers, commanded by General Krasinski and General Dautancourt, major of the regiment. The lancers flanked the village, fell upon the middle of the enemy bivouacs, sabered part of the Prussians and watched the remainder escape.
The Friant division, the cavalry of the Guard, that of General Grouchy and the corps of Marshal Ney penetrated into the rear of the enemy. It was at the combat of Nèuilly-Saint-Front, where the Allies were about to be crushed, that one of these so frequent chances to the war took place that offered welcome exit for them.
Pursuant to the orders of Marshal Blücher, the Generals Bülow and Woronzov had gone on March 1, to Laon and to Rheims, by the town of Soissons, on the taking of which partly depended their junction with the Army on Silesia. The investment of this place began the 2nd, and, as of this day, the Allies started to bombard it; but the garrison was composed of well seasoned soldiers to which was joined well served artillery, which counteracted with strength. The General Bülow, wishing to save greater difficulties, sent a spokesman to General Moreau. This one, little understanding the importance of Soissons and the resources which this place could offer to stop the enemy, only thought of saving its garrison, and believed it useful while capitulating to join the army with his troops.
This capitulation however, if advantageous for the allies, failed to fall through because of the speed that the Prussians produced the convention decree. Under the terms of this convention, the garrison was to take its field pieces; but, when it was time to evacuate, only two of pieces were granted to them. This chicanery, with out cause, transported the brave Poles to fury. Still excited by the noise of the cannons of the French Army, which, since the day before, had not ceased being heard, were going to mutiny against General Moreau and to defend the place in spite of him, when the Count of Woronzov calmed the difficulties while making the Prussians understand the danger of insisting so long for similar claims:
The General Woronzov was right, because hardly was the garrison of Soissons out of the suburbs, that the lead column of the Army of Silesia entered in the greatest disorder.
On learning of the giving up of Soissons, Napoleon had exclaimed:
*The Emperor attached such an importance to the holding of this village, which he had given orders to the Minister of War move troops there, among which we will quote, inter alia:
The battalion head Bellanger, who commanded the detachment of the Old Guard, two hundred and fifty men strong, did not want to speak in praise of these elite soldiers: it is consigned, like that of each corps indicated above, in the account of whole facts and conduct of the troops present who, to the great satisfaction of the Emperor, withstood a regular siege (including eleven days in an open trench) in a shack (bicoque) safe from sudden attack and which had practicable breaches on all the points. In the end this place remained to show the valor of French arms.
Napoleon, on learning in Fontainebleau that Soissons still resisted, was touched by the devotion the purpose without any pretense of rewards, and spoke highly about it to the people who surrounded him.
In 1815, on the report, which was addressed to him, the Emperor, by Imperial Decree, granted twenty-six decorations, which had been requested by the higher commander of Soissons, for those who had contributed to the defense of this village. Among these decorations, there were four officers among them: Colonel Gerard, then non-active, was charged to give them personally to these valiant defenders of the Fatherland.
One of these four crosses of Officer of the Legion of Honor was given to the commander Bellanger, today to pensioner of the State and retired to Rouen. (Communicated note).
Blücher, withdrawn from an eminent danger by this unexpected circumstance, made his junction with the Generals Bülow and Winzingerode, and moved on Craonne, where was to be held one of these battles that needed all the intrepidness, the courage and the constancy of our troops, to resist forces more than triple our own, which sowed death in their ranks without discouraging them.
The headquarters of the Emperor on March 4th was at Fismes, on the road to Rheims. The occupation of Soissons by the Allies notably disturbed the plan of operations, which had been stopped. After one day spent in irresolution, Napoleon directed General Corbineau, with the Laferrière division on Rheims, and ordered to General Grouchy to surprise Braine, while the Marshals Mortier and Marmont would seek to regain Soissons.
The first two operations on Rheims and Braine succeeded. The task imposed on the Marshals Mortar and Marmont was more difficult: also, on March 6, in the morning, Napoleon gave them the order to give up the attack on Soissons, and to move on Berry-au-Bac. General Nansouty also accepted the order to go to this point. He started quickly from Fismes with a Polish brigade and the Excelmans division, with the intention to take the main position of Berry himself. This last took such perfect measure, that he crushed the grand guards of a Russian brigade of cavalry which held the headways, on the road to Rheims, crossing it at a gallop; then, leveling all that he met in the borough, he crossed the bridge following the enemy, and followed it, sword in their back, well past Ville-aux-Bois, after he had captured two pieces of cannon, killed or wounded a score of men and made two hundred prisoners.
During this engagement, the Friant division and that of General Meunier had slipped by along the river of Aisne, and had established themselves on the heights, between Berry-au-Bac and Corbeny.
Blücher, judging by this movement that the intention of the Emperor was to operate on his left flank, he directed his baggage towards Laon, and gave the order to all his corps to establish themselves on the plateau of Craonne, in order to stop the march of Napoleon on Laon; but the Emperor did not give him the time: informed that the allies were seen on the heights of Craonne, he charged the officer d’ordonnance Caraman that a battalion of the Guard had been escorting, to push a reconnaissance in this direction. This battalion went up the brook the mill of Pontois, and having been warmly met by the 13th and 14th Russian Regiments of Chasseurs, that the Count of Woronzov had pushed towards the peak of the plateau of Craonne, Napoleon considered it necessary to support it with a brigade, and ordered Marshal Ney to conduct a diversion on the right. This one came through the wood of Corbeny coming out at Saint Martin, which the regiments of Tula and Novaginsk occupied. A combat began there, which was sharp and murderous, between the Meunier division and these two regiments, which it dislodged from the Abbey of Vaucler, and which it pushed back just to Heurtebise. This farm, captured and alternatively lost by the French and the Russians, remained definitively in the hands of the latter. At seven o'clock in the evening, Napoleon sent the order to cease the fighting. The Old Guard returned to its bivouacs in front of Corbeny.
In the night, the Russians fell back, and took an advantageous position on the heights, behind Saint-Martin and Craonne.
The 7th, at the break of day, Napoleon reconnoitered this position: it appeared formidable to him. The right and left sides of the enemy were pressed on two ravines, and a third ravine covered its face, so that one could come at him only by one narrow defile, which joined the position to the plateau of Craonne.
It was eleven o’clock in the morning when the Emperor began the attack. He directed all his efforts towards the same point where the infantry of General Winzingerode was in position. The Russians were exposed to the most impetuous shock. While Marshal Ney went on the right to outflank the position of Craonne, Marshal Victor, with two divisions of the Young Guard, moved on the Abbey of Vaucler, for, from there, to cross the defile.
The abbey was soon on fire; the enemy was driven out by it. Marshal Victor, at the head of the Young Guard, crossing the ravine, defended by fifty pieces of artillery, reformed himself at once on the height. At the same time, the Marshal was struck by a ball, which passed through the thigh and took him out of combat. A great number of his brave men soldiers had already fallen under the fire from the Russians; but our columns, followed and supported by much artillery of the Guard, which was commanded by General Drouot, crossed in their turn the defile: strong masses of cavalry went on their side, to support the attack. An appalling cannonade begins in the small valley and on the heights: the Russians opposed at all the points with a sharp resistance.
Already Marshal Ney, had crossed the ravine on left, and came out on the right of the enemy, while the Generals Grouchy and Laferrière, at the head of the cavalry of the Guard, crossed the defile in the middle of a hail of balls, bullets and grapeshot: this passage was carried out, as usual by the Horse Grenadiers of the Guard with their noteworthy coolness. In this fight, one of the most obstinate that had been experienced in their lives, the Generals Grouchy and Laferrière were wounded. Happier, General Nansouty crossed the ravine on the right of the Russians, with two other divisions of cavalry, without experiencing a great loss. The fire of the French batteries carried death into the enemy ranks, and dismounted fourteen of their cannons. Seeing themselves turned, and pressed on all quarters, the Russians considered moving their retirement towards Laon, under the direction of General Sacken.
The loss on the two sides was considerable, as many killed as were wounded: six thousand men lost.
The following day the 8th, Marshal Ney pursued the Allies to the village of Estouville. General Woronzov occupied, with eight Russian battalions, this position, all the more difficult to approach as the road was flanked with impassable marsh; but Colonel Gourgaud, first officer d’ordonnance of the Emperor, at the head of two squadrons of Chasseurs of the Old Guard, managed to flank the enemy, while going, by Chaillevois, to Chivy; and, at one o'clock in the morning, our soldiers approached the Russians with fixed bayonets. Awaked by the cries of the French, the latter only had time to fall back upon Laon, where our troops pushed them in disorder; but arriving at the foot of the mountain, they were greeted by a salvo of grapeshot from twelve pieces, which wounded the major of advanced-guard, took down several men and stopped the remainder. In the midst of the failing light, it became impossible to continue this attack; it was necessary to take a position out of the range of the cannon and wait for the following day.
As soon as daylight made it possible to act, the General Belliard threw cavalry towards Clacy, to stabilize his left, and occupy Leuilly, as well as Ardon, without experiencing much resistance; but soon a combat was to start where our intrepidness and the constancy were going to be put to a hard test.
After several useless attempts to seize Laon, Napoleon was stubbornly in front of these formidable heights, defended by forces three times more than his. In the hope to attract the enemy into the plain, he ordered General Charpentier to go to the village of Clacy and to take it with a division of the Young Guard. Hardly was this order given that the village was occupied by a sharp action. The infantry of General Woronzov tried to take it again: seven times he attacked it, seven times he was pushed back by the courage of the Young Guard, which on this day produced prodigious wonders of valor, either while attacking, or by supporting the retirement. While this affair took place, other troops move on Sémilly, already attacked the day before; but the many battalions of General Bülow force our tirailleurs to fall back themselves on the line of the army: then Napoleon, judging that the position of Laon was inaccessible, ordered a retrograde movement to Chavignon.
The combat of Laon, which included various engagements on the 9th and the 10th, was murderous on both sides, without having any decisive result.
The 12th, the Prussians and the Russians, under the command of the Generals Saint-Priest and Jagow, scaled Rheims at five o'clock in the morning. General Corbineau, who commanded in the city, had only three hundred soldiers to oppose more than fourteen thousand attackers. This weak garrison was formed of the cadres of two battalions of the 5th Regiment of Voltigeurs of the Guard, the cadre of a battalion of the 121st, and was supported by some detachments of National Guards.
The battalion head Finat, an officer of tested courage, was killed at the gate known as of Paris, where he fought at the head of forty veterans of the Old Guard; on his side Colonel Jacquemard, of the 5th Voltigeurs of the Guard, collected the troops which remained in the city and went against the enemy, who advanced in the streets of Rheims: summoned to give up, he answered only by passing over the bodies of some Prussian companies, gaining, while fighting, the Gate of Mars, and moved on the village of Châlons-sur-Vesle. Ten squadrons covered the plain and closed any escape to the French; but a heavy and well directed fire pushed back all the charges of the allies: these intrepid French thus managed to make their way through the enemy cavalry, which did not dare to pursue this handful of brave men.
On March 17th, Napoleon left Rheims and laid down the same evening at Épernay with sixteen thousand men, intending to cross the Aube and to operate in the rear of the enemy, while Marshal Mortier, with eighteen thousand men and sixty pieces of artillery, would take positions necessary to contain the Army of Silesia.
The following day, the 18th, the right column, made up of all the troops of the Guard, continued its walk on Fère-Champenoise, where it had to stop to await new orders.
The 19th in the morning, Napoleon wrote to General Sébastiani to cross the Aube at Plancy, and ordered at the same time Marshal Ney to go to Arcis; while at the head of the Letort division and the service squadrons of the Guard, he would move on the road of Méry.
During these movements, the enemy army had rallied. The Prince of Württemberg marched in two columns: the first made up of Württembergers, the second of the Austrians of the Count Gyulai and the corps of Rajewsky. This second column was linked to the corps of Wrede by the cavalry of General Kaisarov; the Count of Spleny, with a thousand of chasseurs, the dragoons of Knesewitsch and the uhlans of Schwarzenberg, watched the right bank of the Aube, between Pougy and Remerupt.
General Sébastiani, who had received the order to go to Plancy, encountered the Cossacks of Kaisarov again, on the height of Courtemain; charged them, took a great number of prisoners, and arrived at the bridge of Plancy, which he repaired with the help of the inhabitants. This work completed, in spite of a sharp cannonade, he crossed the second arm of the Aube, at the ford of Charny, under the protection of a battalion, which was thrown in the village.
The 20th, in the morning, he was set in motion on Arcis, where a bloody battle was fought, and which, following the example of Craonne, did not have any result.
Napoleon, for his part, started from Plancy after having given the order to General Letort recall the cavalry of the Guard, crossed the day before over to the left bank of the Seine; but, by a misunderstanding, this general returned only with the dragoons, and left the grenadiers and the foot chasseurs of the Guard in their bivouacs. Napoleon arrived at Arcis around one o’clock. At two o’clock, at the moment when the head of the infantry of the Guard was going to arrive, the Count of Wrede put his masses moving on Arcis. He was about with five kilometers from the city, when General Kaisarov, seeing himself stronger in number than the French cavalry, charged it, after a strong cannonade, throwing back the Colbert division, which formed the first line, and shook that of General Excelmans. The Count of Wrede, informed of this success, then reinforced General Kaisarov with the cavalry of the Count Frimont and three batteries; then he ordered General Volkman to take the village of Grand-Torcy, to come to Arcis, and to seize the bridge in order to prevent the French infantry emerging, or for cutting off the retreat to all on the left bank of the Aube.
Already the fugitives, pushed by General Kaisarow, fell on the bridges: the cavalry was preferably set upon the Guard, from which it had already taken three guns. Napoleon, seeing this rout, took his sword in hand, and, throwing himself ahead of them:
Then, returning towards the soldiers:
These words were enough to stop the disorder.
Then on both sides an appalling cannonade began. Napoleon constantly remained exposed to fire, several officers were wounded near his person, his horse was even touched by a bullet; then murmurs of blame were heard for how he exposed himself.
While these things occurred to the right, Marshal Ney withstood, on the left, the repeated efforts of the Austro-Bavarians. The village of Torcy, located on the left, was occupied by four Bavarian regiments and two Austrian regiments: the Marshal, judging the importance of this post, directed two battalions of new levies there, at the head of which the intrepid Marshal Lefebvre put himself like a simple volunteer: the village was carried; but as the enemy received new reinforcements, the French there could not be maintained. However, General Jacquemard, with the remainder of his brigade, went back; he penetrated there twice with bayonet and twice he was pushed back. But soon the face of the scene changed: the Old Guard, newly come from Plancy at quicken pace, finally managed to remain masters of this unhappy village, that shells had set fire to and that was, up to ten o’clock in the night, the theater of the most murderous fight.
On March 21, at the break of day, Napoleon recalled the cavalry and the infantry of the Guard, which were still in Méry and Plancy, and told the corps of the Marshal Oudinot and General Saint-Germain, like that of the divisions of cavalry Berckheim and Defrance, to cross the Aube. After having assigned the ranks of these troops in the line of battle, he pushed a reconnaissance in front of Grand-Torcy, on the road of Lesmont. As Wrede had withdrawn himself to Chaudrey, only some groups of cavalry were seen, which made the Emperor believe that the enemy had carried out his retirement; also, returning to Arcis, he ordered General Sébastiani to attack at once, with the cavalry of the Guard and the line: Marshal Ney had to support this attack with all the infantry, to make the shock decisive. After a short cannonade, the heads of the columns arrived on the peak of the plateau, from where the Marshal and Sébastiani discovered perfectly the position of the allies: they extended in three lines, and presented a force of at least a hundred thousand combatants.
Marshal Ney and General Sébastiani at once informed the Emperor of the state of the things, without hiding from him, that a battle, in such a position and against such unequal forces, would compromise his last resources: Napoleon weighed the facts and ordered the retirement. Then Marshal Ney began the withdrawal with divisions of infantry of the Guard and that of General Jenssens, and General Sébastiani covered this movement while withdrawing himself slowly and in checkered fashion, to give time for our troops to cross again the Aube.
Napoleon, with the Old Guard, slept in Farémont. According to what he had seen the allies doing, he resolved to operate on their rear again.
Consequently, he set the direction of the army towards Saint-Dizier; and, on March 23, he started on this city with the Friant division, of the Guard, and the cavalry of Generals Lefebvre-Desnouettes, Saint-Germain, Defrance and Piré. This last division, formed the head of a column strengthened by the Guards of Honor, after having taken beautiful bridging equipment and making nine hundred prisoners, pushed up to Doulevant: the infantry of the Guard remained in Saint-Dizier, with Napoleon, who established his headquarters there.
The 25th, at six o'clock in the morning, Marshal Mortier went up the left bank of the Somme with his advanced-guard, while three divisions of the Guard went to Notre-Dame. The combat of the Fère-Champenoise took place the same day.
The engagement had lasted until seven o’clock in the morning, and Marshals Mortier and Marmont were proud of themselves for having gained the heights of Fère-Champenoise through fighting, when a dreadful shower increased the sadness of their retreat about Connantray. The Russian cavalry, supported by this downpour, which whipped the face of the French line, charged the hardly reformed cuirassiers, threw them back on the infantry, and took two pieces of artillery from them. The divisions of the Young Guard only had time to form in squares; two of those of the Jamin brigade were cut through and this general made captive. To add to the misfortune, the storm grew stronger; it hailed violently, no powder ignited, and only the bayonet could be used. In this horrible disorder, nothing could be distinguished beyond ten steps, and twice the marshals took refuge in the squares not to be swept away by the fugitives. Fortunately in a little while it suddenly cleared up; the good conduct of the divisions Ricard and Christiani, of the Guard, placed at the ends of the line, gave time for our cavalry to cross the ravine of Connantray, and to reform on the other side. Hardly had the French Army rallied, that some courriers were seen emerging from the ravine, affected by the same disorder that had existed since the beginning of the action. Soon artillery, cavalry, infantry, ran pell-mell in the direction with Fère-Champenoise, the rout was going to be complete, when an unhoped-for reinforcement saved the army.
The 9th regiment of heavy cavalry, commanded by Colonel Leclerc, emerged from Fère-Champenoise, at the moment when our troops crossed it. Without hesitating, this regiment went to meet the light squadrons of the Allies, held them by their firm conduct, and thus provided our corps chiefs with the means of rallying their troops on the heights of Lirthes.
While this unpleasant scene took place, General Pacthod, in a hurry to meet with the marshals, had set himself in motion at Vitry at the break of day. Coming close to Villeseneux, he received, at ten o'clock in the morning, the command of Marshal Mortier to remain at Bagnères for new orders, where he still believed him to be. According to this advice, General Pacthod supposed that he had time to rest his men; but hardly had he established them there, that the cavalry of General Korff, who had followed the route of Châlons by Étoges, attacked him. He reformed his troops at once, the right supported on the village, the left covered by a square, and behind the massed convoy. He hoped to reach, in this order, Fère-Champenoise, when Count Pahlen established himself, with two regiments of horse chasseurs, on his rear, and placing him with the alternative give up or to fight. This situation gave place to a council. General Delord proposed to charge the enemy, while the remainder of the troops contained General Korff. This opinion having been adopted, his troop formed at once in to a column of attack, approached at a charge the Russian chasseurs, and forced them to fall back; but hardly had these two regiments drawn aside, that the cavalry of Sacken’s corps, attracted by the sound of cannon, carried out several charges which obliged General Delord to fall back again.
Such was the state of the things, when around four o’clock, the cavalry and the artillery of the Russian Guard joined the action.
General Pacthod, who already had lost many people, threatened with seeing himself encircled on all sides, shifted his march towards the marshes of Saint-Gond; the allied pursuit only became sharper about him, and soon he realized that it would be impossible for him to reach them. Recognizing the desperate position, which he was in then, he harangued the National Guards; and, making them understand the shame of a capitulation in open country, made them swear to sell their lives dearly.
His speech electrified its common citizens, who, formed in squares and firm as rocks, drew aside with a rolling fire the enemy cavalry, which became exhausted in its vain efforts against them. Despairing to force them with this arm, the Emperor Alexander advanced a brigade of infantry of the corps of Rajewsky; but, before this one could come into action, the Russian batteries peppered the French squares with grapeshot.
General Barasdin, at the head of the New-Russia and Kargapol Regiments, penetrated our right, where General Pacthod was; our left experienced the same fate soon afterwards. Nevertheless the Amey division, braving all the attacks, touched close to Beaune-aux-Marais, where it felt it must find an ensured refuge, when, overpowered under the grapeshot of forty-eight pieces of cannon, it was taken in the rear by a charge. All the enemy cavalry, that of the corps of Sacken, and two regiments of that of Count Langeron sprang on it and butchered it horribly. General Thévenet was wounded and taken, no man escaped, because, though pierced, the National Guards, fighting with bayonets, refused quarter.
In this bloody business, the battalion head Rapatel, French by birth and old aide-de-camp of the famous General Moreau, since become, an aide-de-camp of the Emperor of Russia, was killed while trying to take the square where one of his brothers fought as an artillery captain.
Such was the result of an unhappy combat, but where the bravery of our soldiers held in check all the combined forces of the allies.
Napoleon who, since March 23, had put all his troops moving, marching himself the 24th, with his Guard, on Joinville, from where he set out again the 25th, at late morning, moving on Saint-Dizier.
In the stage of the march of the French Army, the park general and the grand baggage of the Allies, which were at Bar-sur-Aube, were evacuated to Béfort.
Napoleon, arriving on the plateau of Valcourt, recognized the enemy arranged for battle on the opposite bank. He occupied the town of Saint-Dizier, with two battalions, on which his left was supported; his right extended in the direction of Vitry, protected, in the wood of Perthes, by some infantry: swarms of tirailleurs, on foot and horse, bordered the Marne. His first line was in front of the road, facing the river; his second, behind, and the artillery, intermingled with some squadrons, had been placed on the roadway which similarly dominated the road.
Napoleon, on his side, recalled the corps of infantry, which were close to Vassey and ordered them with the cavalry to cross the Marne at the ford of Halligincourt. General Sébastiani crossed in column by groups, and spread himself on the right and the left of the ford, supported by the corps of the Generals Saint-Germain, Milhaud and Kellermann, who were formed on his sides. The infantry of the Guard, that of the General Gerard and Marshal Macdonald, followed the cavalry, while Marshal Oudinot moved on Saint-Dizier, by the road of Joinville.
General Winzingerode sought, as much as he could, to avoid combat on a field if he wasn’t able to use his maneuver his cavalry with effect; but, on other hand, fearing to lose the infantry which held Saint-Dizier, he ordered General Tettenborn to cover the road of Vitry, while with the bulk of his forces he would gain the road of Bar-sur-Ornain.
In accordance with this instruction, Tettenborn, at the head of the Isum Hussars, tried several charges, which were unfruitful. On his side, Winzingerode stirring to approach Saint-Dizier, the cavalry of the Guard sprang on his column, pierce it, and chased the fugitives to the wood of Trois-Fontaines.
While this occurred to the left, Marshal Oudinot entered charging in to Saint-Dizier, whose garrison, frightened, was thrown back in disorder on the Bar.
The enemy being then without support, the French cavalry redoubled its activity. General Milhaud charged impetuously on the road of Vitry, and seized six pieces of cannon. General Letort, with the dragoons of the Guard, broke into a square of infantry, which sought to gain the wood. On the right, General Kellermann pursued the enemy columns, in their escape on the roadway of the Bar, and the infantry, following at a racing pace the cuirassiers and the dragoons, cuts down, under her bayonets, all that escaped the saber from our horsemen; finally, Marshal Macdonald gave chase to Tettenborn up to Perthes, and only ceased as the night brought the sound of fusils.
The French headquarters remained in Saint-Dizier, where the Guard was established. The Russians lost in this day eighteen hundred men, including five hundred prisoners, nine pieces of cannon, bridging equipment and their entire luggage.
The loss of the French did not exceed six hundred men put out of combat: this advantage was only due to the quickness of their attacks.
This victory, which gloriously avenged the unhappy day at Fère-Champenoise, was the last where the Guard took part; but we will not cease repeating, it had shown in this prestigious campaign all that one had the right to expect in its bravery, the excellence of its discipline and its patriotism.
The battle under the walls of Paris, five days afterwards, could hardly offer anything remarkably good for the few detached bodies of the Guard which were disseminated at several points: nevertheless here were the principal positions which they occupied in the morning of March 30, 1814 *.
*In this period, one of the most beautiful feats of arms, which demonstrated the glory of the Guard, was, indisputably, the defense of the bridge of Neuilly.
On March 30, 1814, Captain Morlay, at the head of fifty grenadiers of the Guard, almost all wounded, was in charge of the defense of this bridge. Attacked, in the evening, by two thousand men and four pieces of cannon, these brave men were summoned several times to give up; but their answer was the same with each summons: “The Old Guard never lays down its arms!” Their courageous conduct imposed so much on the enemy, whom they held in their position. The following day the allies, again wanting to cross the bridge, obtained passage from them only after having signed a most honorable capitulation, which saved all the effects of clothing and quartering which were in the magazines of Courbevoie, and which were assessed at a value of more than five hundred and thousand Francs.
The reserve destined to form or support the line of Marshal Marmont and the center of the army between the channel of the Ourcq and the heights of Belleville, was behind Pantin and in front of the Villette, facing the enemy.
The division of the Young Guard, under the command of General Boyer de Reberval was made up of three battalions of the 11th Regiment of Voltigeurs, a Flanqueurs-Grenadiers battalion and a battalion of tirailleurs, totaling together approximately two thousand men.
The division of General Michel was composed of four thousand men, formed from the depots of infantry, of which a thousand, arriving from the towns of the Departments of the West, had been armed only that morning.
These two divisions occupied the positions in front of Pantin.
The cavalry of the Generals Bordesoulle and Chastel occupied those of Ménilmontant to the Père-la-Chaise.
The divisions Ricard, Lagrange and Ledru extended just beyond Belleville, and linked with the division of the General Boyer de Reberval, who held the Saint-Gervais meadows and the banks of the plateau of Beauregard.
The brigade of light infantry of the General Michel covered the hamlet of the Maisonnettes and kept the bridges of the channel of Ourcq.
At the positions in front of Clichy found the brigade of cavalry under the command of General Dautencourt: it was composed of three hundred and twenty grenadiers, dragoons, chasseurs and scouts, drawn from all the depots of the Guard.
The battalion of the sappers of the engineers of the Guard occupied the heights of Montmartre.
Placed in these various positions, the Guard helped to hold up to four o’clock in the evening the multiplied attacks of the Allies.
At the beginning of the action, the tirailleurs of the Young Guard broke into, almost at the same time as the enemy, to the houses of Pantin. In vain General Kretov, tried to stop, experiencing some charges on the right of the road: crushed by grapeshot and encumbered by the broken terrain, his cuirassiers were obliged to fall back under the protection of the village.
On another point, Marshal Marmont ordered General Clavel, commanding a brigade of the Guard of the Ricard division, to repel an attacking column. This brigade, hardly forming a battalion, led by the Marshal in person, against the Russian division Puschnizky, advanced with courage; but a Russian battery established in the wood, on a hillock from where it plunged on the road, opened at that instant its fire and threw disorder in the ranks. The enemy seized the moment: its grenadiers approach by the left, its cuirassiers fell on the right; it was pierced. The fugitives are thrown on the remainder of the reserve and carried it along, chased by the enemy; but General Compans brought at once a battalion of the Young Guard to the hillock known as du télégraphe, and Colonel Ghenneser, who occupied the park of Brière, fell with two hundred men on the rear of the Russian grenadiers. This blow of audacity stopped them, and, while the infantry of General Puschnizky seized the park of Brière, Marshal Marmont rallied at the telegraph his scattered army corps.
At once he reformed his line in the position, which extended from the Mount-Louis to the Saint-Gervais meadows, through the Saint-Fargeau Park. This position had required ten to twelve thousand men, while all that remained with the Marshal was only five thousand, and still they all were extremely tired.
While the grand Allied Army attacked and turned the heights of Paris, the corps of General Langeron, in his offensive move, drove out of Aubervilliers, on the Chapelle, the tirailleurs of the Young Guard of Colonel Robert, and transferred his Russian brigade as well as the detachment of infantry and cavalry of Major Kozietulski there. The Generals Kapzevitsch and Karnietow, believing Saint-Denis out of bounds to combat, had pulled back, with the remainder of their troops, with respect to Clignancourt and of the Chapelle. The Count of Langeron arrived with the majority of his corps at Batignolles a detachment and a battery, which was to go to the level of General Kapzevitsch, and to observe what, would leave Paris by the barricades of Clichy. General Rudzevich accepted from him, at the same time, the order to send towards the wood of Boulogne, by the path of the Révolte, a body of cavalry, some light artillery, meaning that it lacked infantry to sweep the plain of Clichy, and to contain the detachments of the Parisian Guard which were seen at the barricades of the east.
But this column, put under the command of General Emmanuel, carried out its movement at too great a distance and with too much circumspection for Marshal Mortier to be able to bother it: this last was thus satisfied to order General Belliard to extend his left by Clignancourt, towards the plain of Clichy, and to observe in this direction the detachment of Count Langeron with the brigade of the cavalry of the Guard, under the command of General Dautencourt.
The Count of Langeron continued his movement towards Montmartre, while General Rudzevich, with his cavalry, started to go beyond, on the path of the Révolte, the village of Clichy, General Belliard was obliged to carry his to the foot of Montmartre. In this disposition, the chasseurs and the scouts of the Guard, having for the reserve the grenadiers, masked by the chalk pit of Clignancourt, engaged the Russians, conjoined with approximately two hundred National Guards of the 2nd Legion, in a very sharp fusillade.
The engagement had become general all along the line, when of all parts ceased fire, being replaced with consternation. The troops who since the morning faced death with an all the more heroic courage, even though each soldier was aware that this defensive show could not save the capital, were resolved consequently to painful reflection. The image of the retirement of the French, crossing the streets of Paris, overtaken with fatigue, dying of hunger, devoured by a burning thirst, covered with wounds and dust and hardly being able to drag themselves, to gain the opposed barriers, was dreadful.
As for Napoleon, after the combat of Saint-Dizier, having learned that the allies went on Paris, he had gotten under way with the remainder of his army, and moved on the capital, by Bar-sur-Aube and Troyes, in front of the forest of Fontainebleau. The situation of the Guard which accompanied him was more dreadful: for six days, without bread and shoes, missing essential items, forced to get under way in deplorable conditions, in the middle of impassible paths, this heroic Imperial Guard proved itself to be no less heroic, full of abnegation, to follow his chiefs, who gave them the example of courage and resignation, without a sound of self pity.
On March 29, at the head of the cavalry of the Guard, the Emperor marched on Vendeuvre. Hardly had he arrived at the bridge of Dolancourt, when he met a messenger, which his brother Joseph sent to him, charged to give a dispatch to him to announce to him the arrival of the Allies in Meaux. After having given the orders, which the news he had learned required, Napoleon left for Troyes, escorted only by the four service squadrons of the Guard.
The remainder of the cavalry of the Guard also went on Troyes, where it arrived in the night: the infantry bivouacked in Lusigny.
The following day of the 30th, the foot and horse Guard crossed Troyes, moving on Villeneuve-la- Archevêque, where it arrived overcome by fatigue, after having gone twenty-four hours of continuously without resting. Napoleon, who had preceded it, left that city about the evening: his service squadrons, which had been able to follow him only to Villeneuve-la-Guyard, Napoleon left without any escort for Fontainebleau.
Hardly had he arrive there, that he asked for his carriage, got inside, accompanied by Berthier and Caulaincourt, and moved towards Cour-de-France; but there he met General Belliard, at the head of the first columns which evacuated Paris, and this general at once informed him of all that occurred since March 19.
“For eight days Paris had been without news, Baron Fain relates, in his manuscript of 1814. The distance of Napoleon, believed to be on the side of Saint-Dizier, left all without hope of being helped. The departure of the Empress and her son had crowned our discouragement*: in consequence of this abrupt departure, which had carried with it the Ministers and the chiefs of the government, all had remained in dissension and confusion. At the sight of the enemy, the rich had thought of capitulating and the poor to fight; the workmen had requested weapons from the Minister for the war (Clarke) without being able to obtain some.
*The King Joseph has been reproached for the departure of Marie-Louise. To show how much this reproach is unjust, it is enough to quote a letter of the Emperor written at the time when he had already thought through his army’s grand maneuvers, on Paris, to surprise the allied armies. After this letter, wasn’t the King obligated to act?
“Prince Joseph, Commander in Chief the Parisian army, seeing the flood of the enemy arrived at the foot of Montmartre, having recognized that there was no other option but to capitulate, had given the authority to the Duke of Ragusa, and had left to go to join the government on the Loire: it was around five o’clock in the evening. Staff officers of the two armies met at once, the terms of a capitulation had been posed; but in the evening, the drafting was not finished yet, and nothing had been signed.”
This account left little hope; and, indeed, the Duke of Vicence that Napoleon had sent into Paris to determine if it were still possible to save the capital returned in the following night to announce that all was done. The capitulation had been signed at two o'clock in the morning; and, at the coming of the day, the allies were to make their entry in the capital.
Napoleon turned back, and was led to Fontainebleau. The next day and those following, the Guard, which arrived successively, was established in the surroundings of this residence, as well as the Marshals whom duty and fidelity called under the tent. They were old campaigners of Italy and Egypt: the old man Lefebvre, Macdonald, Ney, Oudinot, Berthier. Soon Marmont and Mortier, who had made their retirement from Paris on Essonnes, after having crossed on to left bank of the Seine, joined Napoleon.
The campaign of 1814 can rightly be named: Campaign of the Imperial Guard. As long as one speaks about Bar-sur-Aube, Saint-Dizier, Rothière, Champ-Aubert, Montmirail, Vauchamps, Nagis, Montereau, Craonne and Arcis-sur-Aube, these names will be involuntarily attached to that of the Guard. In these forever glorious days, it was seen carrying without delay fear and death in to the enemy ranks: more than once only its presence was enough to make the foreign legions beat a retreat; everywhere, finally, it justified the brilliant reputation which it had so precisely acquired in the preceding campaigns, campaigns which will eternally highlight famous actions, but also painful memories.
Placed on the Napoleon Series: November 2006
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