The Campaign of 1814: Chapter Six Part III

By: Maurice Weil

Translated by: Greg Gorsuch


(after the Imperial and Royal War Archives at Vienna)





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

Battle of Brienne.  --The French cavalry engaged.  --Pahlen still in the process of deploying, had barely prepared to send the uhlans of Tchougouiev to support Scherbatov, when it was learned that the French, after occupying Boulancourt had crossed the Voire with the infantry and the cavalry were chasing the Cossacks.  The French cavalry, arriving at Maizières, continued to push before them the posts established in front of the defile, and about noon, it forced Scherbatov to withdraw to Perthes-en-Rothière by the great route from Brienne.  Pahlen, directed soon after on Brienne and on the road from Brienne to Lassicourt the 4th and 34th Regiments of Eigers establishing themselves with all his cavalry on the plain to the south and east of Perthes.

For his part, Colonel-General Count Grouchy, who commanded the cavalry, and to whom the Emperor had recommended to march with caution, after passing the village of Juzanvigny, discovered at the exit of wood of Anjou, near Brienne, Sacken's cavalry deployed in front of this city.  The attitude of this troop leading him to assume that it was supported by infantry troops, Grouchy did not think himself strong enough to attack with cavalry.  He resolved to await the arrival on the line of the divisions Lefebvre-Desnouettes and Krasinsky, and ordered his artillery to cover the deployment of his squadrons.[1]  Almost at the same time, French troops showed themselves in front of Soulaines-Dhuys, near Chaumesnil, occupied by Lanskoy; their vanguard not slow to reach and gain the edge of the wood of Chaumesnil.[2]

Although the French infantry at that time still found itself quite far behind, although Grouchy was complying with the orders he had received, though he must have expected to find the troops of Blücher established to support the squadrons of Pahlen, it is regrettable that the commander of the French cavalry did not see fit to attempt an attack, which carried out at that time would have probably been more successful than if Sacken had not yet reached Brienne and Pahlen looked only to gain time.  As shown below in the dispatch addressed to Schwarzenberg by one of his trusted officers, by the officer that in all critical circumstances, he undertook to find out what was happening at the headquarters Blücher, the forces that could have been sent at that time against Grouchy would hardly have been able to resist in earnest, and, as happened later, Pahlen would have been withdrawn on Brienne while simply trying to put on a good front:

"Major Mareschal to Prince Schwarzenberg.  --Ailleville, 29 January 1814, 3 o'clock in the afternoon."[3]

"This morning, the enemy taking the road from Montier-en-Der to Brienne, had occupied Boulancourt, had crossed the Voire with infantry and cavalry and pushed the Cossacks of Scherbatov from Maizières."

"It has also appeared on the route from Joinville.  General Lanskoy occupies Chaumesnil with infantry and a half-battery.  He has orders to stay there at any cost."

"At Brienne, there are two regiments of infantry and a battery of 12.  The rest of the corps is still in Lesmont with orders to come to Brienne, where it will arrive before the enemy attack."

"The vanguard of the Crown Prince of Württemberg is at Vallières[4] and Dienville.  The rest of the IVth Corps is still near Bar-sur-Aube."

"The enemy has also made a forward movement from Maizières on the wood of Soulaines; this movement makes me assume that the enemy will not attack the corps posted at Brienne and prefers to cut the road from Bar-sur-Aube, a point he can reach before us by Doulevant."

"I beg Your Highness to please send an officer to help me.  As I write this report at Ailleville, near General Franquemont, there is a violent cannonade on the left.  This must be the enemy who attacks Chaumesnil.  I close on this side to make a report tonight, for your Highness."

Pending the entry into the line of the bulk of the 5th Cavalry Corps and the approach of the column heads of Victor, whose progress was delayed by bad roads, while General Olsufiev was preparing to hold Brienne, the cavalry of the French advanced guard merely exchanged cannon shots with the artillery of Pahlen and sought in filing to the right of Maizières and gaining the heights of Perthes to outflank the left of the Russian cavalry.  Finally, after two hours, between two and three o'clock in the afternoon, Grouchy, having placed on his right the light cavalry of generals Krasinsky and Lefebvre-Desnouettes, in the center the dragoons of General Lhéritier with a battery and on the left, the light cavalry of Piré with a battery, moved forward to charge Pahlen.  This one, considering his mission as completed, did not think, in the presence of the numerical superiority of the French cavalry, on waiting for an attack.  He withdrew[5], without undue haste, on Brienne, he then crossed to form on the other side of town, on the road from Bar-sur-Aube.  However, Grouchy, seizing an opportunity that seemed appropriate, launched the dragoons of generals Lhéritier and Briche on the last Russian regiments, but after pushing these regiments back, the dragoons came against three battalions of Russian infantry, which had had time to form into squares and whose well-directed and destructive fire forced them to retreat, and allowed the Uhlans of Tchougouiev to throw them back in disorder up to the positions occupied by the French artillery, who lost three pieces.

Thus the troops of Sacken were allowed time to reach Brienne and form the horse on the road from Bar-sur-Aube.  As for Olsufiev he firmly held the town even as the Emperor, who arrived on the battlefield, directed his artillery to bombard the road from Lesmont and the town of Brienne, and was prepared to form his attack on his right.[6]

Entry of the French infantry into the line.  --The infantry of the 2nd Corps had just come into line, and under the protection of the fierce fire of his artillery, the Emperor soon launched the division of Duhesme against Brienne, who, coming from the wood of Anjou, chased the Russian skirmishers from the ditches of the road from Bar-sur-Aube, from the gardens in front of the city and from their shelter along the road that led to Morvilliers and Doulevant.  Unmasking their support from the houses they occupied further to the rear, it even managed to temporarily take over part of the town of Brienne.  But reinforcements sent from that side by Olsufiev and the entrance onto the line by the 4th and 34th Regiments of eigers forced General Duhesme to abandon the positions he had just conquered and the two pieces that his troops had taken from the Russians.

Attack of Brienne.  --While the Emperor decided to take Brienne, he took steps to increase his attack on his right, urging the march of the divisions of Ney.  Three columns were charged with the operation against Brienne.  One, that of the center, six battalions strong from the division Decouz, of the Young Guard, led by Ney, was to move by the city on the road of Maizières.  The other, the left, was to renew its first attack, which had not had the desired results.  Finally the 3rd, under the command of General Châtaux, was intended to take the far right to move by the road of Lesmont on the rear of the chateau of Brienne and seize them.  At this time, the last troops of Sacken, after a moment of being in danger of being cut off from the rest of the Army of Silesia, marched by Brienne, which the cavalry also finished crossing. Pahlen then formed on the extreme right of Blücher with all his cavalry, reinforced by that of Lanskoy, of Panchulidzev, of Vasilchikov, and the flying corps of Scherbatov and Biron, while, against them, all the French cavalry was deployed to the right of the French lines in the space between the road from Lesmont to Brienne and that from Maizières to Brienne.

Cavalry charge of Pahlen.  --The three columns of French infantry began to move between five and six o'clock; but Blücher had noticed the mistake the French had committed in sending all their cavalry on their right.  Leaving the two columns of Châtaux and Decouz to try to enter Brienne, without worrying about  the French dragoons that had taken two pieces and were about to make Sacken himself a prisoner, he threw himself with forty to fifty squadrons on the division of Duhesme, throwing them into disorder and taking eight cannons.  This brilliant charge, which, because of the darkness, could not be pushed further, nor have consequences it would have had during the day, never the less, stopped the progress of the column of Decouz.  In the presence of the check that the cavalry of Pahlen had imposed on the division of Duhesme, Decouz was forced to move back, where he would establish himself in the town.[7]

Blücher almost taken at the château of Brienne.  --Blücher, believing that the fighting would end and that the French had abandoned their plan to take Brienne, returned to his headquarters based at the chateau, where he would try to make one last glance at the battlefield and the French positions before taking a final resolution and before the darkness only became deeper.  But General Châtaux, who had managed to mask the march of his column, taking a path that the Russians, believing impracticable, had not been guarding, managed to enter the chateau, which he occupied without being seen and without firing a shot.  It was thanks to a providential chance, and not without difficulty that Blücher and Gneisenau, hearing some noise in the ditches and tunnels of the castle, managed to win the court first at a time when the head of the column of General Châtaux arrived there on his side and debouched from the caves and terraces.  Blücher and Gneisenau had barely time to flee in haste by the path leading down to the town.  If the French had not delayed one or two minutes before starting the fire, the two staunch enemies of the Emperor, the two most irreconcilable enemies of France, would have undoubtedly fallen into the hands of the tirailleurs of General Châtaux, who made prisoners of the commander of the escort, Captain von Heyden (seriously injured), and the commander of the headquarters of Blücher, Captain Count Hardenberg.[8]  General Châtaux, after establishing 400 men of the 37th and 56th Regiments at the Chateau de Brienne, immediately move on the town. Surprising the Russians by his appearance and believing an attack impossible on this side, they were forced to abandon it.

Unsuccessful cavalry charge of the of Lefebvre-Desnouettes.  --But Fortune, who was always to restore the affairs of the Allies, just when they seemed most in jeopardy, almost immediately deprived General Châtaux of the brilliant advantage that through his daring and skill, he had won almost without a blow.

While the General Châtaux thought himself already master of the city, just when Blücher and Gneisenau fled in the middle of the fire and went to join their forces, the cavalry of Lefebvre-Desnouettes failed again to take it from General Sacken, who had just entered the city by the road of Lesmont.  Alerted by a Cossack, Blücher and Gneisenau had time to run before being overtaken.[9]  Sacken[10], carried away by the flood of French cavalrymen, and happier than his quartermaster general, Colonel Count de Rochechouart. who was killed in the melee, managed to leap into a side street.

Charge of the Russian cavalry.  --But the alarm was given; the Russian cavalry threw the cavalry of Lefebvre-Desnouettes on the division of Duhesme leading him to retreat, and General Châtaux, attacked by superior forces, kept from encircling the town , had to confine himself to strongly occupying the chateau and some houses in Brienne.

The presence of French troops at the castle and Brienne nevertheless constituted a real danger to the (artillery) park of the Army of Silesia, which was headed at this time from Lesmont on Dienville.  Blücher resolved, therefore, about 10 o'clock at night to charge Olsufiev to take the castle, and for Sacken to wrest from the French the part of the town remaining in their hands.

Blücher attacks by night the town and chateau of Brienne.  --The columns of Olsufiev tried unsuccessfully twice to enter by climbing into the castle; each time they were repulsed after a very sharp struggle, and finally forced to withdraw to the town.  Finally, after a fierce battle in which the possession of each house was disputed and in which one brigade general of General Decouz, the  Vice Admiral Baste, was killed, General Decouz mortally wounded and Berthier slightly wounded, the troops of Sacken managed to regain almost entirely the town of Brienne from the French .[11]  Only around midnight, the opponents, wearied by the struggle that had lasted nearly nine hours, tired out by the constant melee that had been without support since the dark, decided to cease fire.  The battle of Brienne had cost each of the two armies about 3,000 men.

The French remained masters of the castle and a few houses away from the city.  The Imperial Headquarters was established in Perth, and the bulk of the French infantry took position to the right and left of the road from Maizières.

Blücher pulls back his infantry during the night.  --When he was reassured about the fate of his park, Blücher gave, from his headquarters at Arsonval, the following orders: the troops of Olsufiev to file silently after midnight, on the road from Bar-sur-Aube up to Arsonval and to establish their camp behind this village; the corps of Sacken to perform the same movement by the same road at 2 o'clock in the morning and to then bivouac at Bossancourt.  The cavalry was ordered to stay only until the morning at Brienne and at the same time to take a few positions in the city after the departure of the infantry.  It was, if the enemy were to attack at the break of day, to retreat to Trannes, where it would find the infantry position.  The wounded and the taken French guns were directed on Bar-sur-Aube.

This night retreat took place in silence and without being molested by the French, who exhausted by the fatigues of the march and the efforts exerted during the fight, did not enter Brienne until 4 o'clock in the morning.  The corps of Sacken took position in the morning on the heights of Trannes, his left at Trannes itself, his right at Éclance, covered in front by the Cossacks who, scouting the rear of the French, took away some baggage belonging to the Emperor.

Positions of the Army of Bohemia.  --Positions of the Vth and VIth Corps.  --If the morning of the 29th, the Army of Silesia, without mentioning the Ist Corps that was still between the Meuse and Ornain, was far from concentrated, as Sacken was at Pougy and Lesmont, while Blücher and Olsufiev held at Brienne, it was almost the same for the army of Schwarzenberg, which formed at that moment two absolutely distinct groups, separated by nearly two full days of marching.

One of these groups, the Vth and VIth Corps, stood around Joinville and on the banks of Marne River, upstream from the city, while another (IIIrd and IVth Corps) was established near Bar-sur-Aube, Dienville and Vendeuvre.

Behind each of these groups, and at a distance roughly equal to each of them, the guards and reserves were staggered from Chaumont to La Ferté-sur-Aube.  Schwarzenberg on the occupation of Saint-Dizier and Joinville and bad news received from Blücher, had feared a possible French attack against his right and had just moved from a dangerous dispersal of these corps that an opponent as strong and as resolute as Napoleon could reach to beat one after the another.  To limit the possibility of the danger he feared he had created, he therefore sent on the night of 28th to 29th to his corps commanders the orders we have discussed above.

Skirmishes of cavalry on the side of Wassy and Dommartin. - The VIth Corps who was to, together with Wrede, attack and take Joinville to cover the right of the Army of Bohemia and extend a hand to Yorck, completely cut off from the Blücher by the march of the French and the capture of Saint-Dizier, occupied Joinville the 29th that the enemy had evacuated.  It was only in this city that Wittgenstein learned from the mouth of Wrede the events of recent days and gained knowledge of the movements that General Lanskoy had made on Doulevant, a movement that completely uncovered the route from Void and from Toul.  He immediately sent the cavalry at Ligny orders to push to Bar-le-Duc parties responsible for the linking with the vanguard of Yorck[12].  He directed at the same time a brigade of infantry and a thousand horses to Wassy where this column came up against the advanced troops of Marmont, with whom it skirmished during the afternoon of the 29th, around Nomécourt[13].

During this day of the 29th, General Ilovaysky XII had occupied, with a regiment of Cossacks, Dommartin where the French cavalry coming from Doulevant tried unsuccessfully and repeatedly to dislodge them[14].

Wrede had also arrived on the 29th at Joinville.  He and Frimont established their headquarters in Saint-Urbain-Maconcourt; their troops were quartered south of Joinville and reconnaissance made it known that they had had found Doulevant and Wassy strongly held by Marmont, forming the left wing of Napoleon, marching from Montier-en-Der on Brienne.[15] Although the Austro-Bavarians had not supported a single combat since the affair of Saint-Dié, deprivation, fatigue from marches and the rigors of the temperature were particularly felt by the Vth Corps.  Men and horses were exhausted.  The artillery could hardly keep up and to follow the convoys.  The health of the troops was so bad that most regiments had as many patients as present and Wrede saw himself in the case, writing the night of the 29th to Schwarzenberg: "Forces me to rest the Vth Corps, the 30th.  However, I will send a strong reconnaissance on Wassy and Dommartin, in order be well informed, for the march to the enemy on 31st."[16]

Movement of the IVth Corps on Ailleville.  --On the other side of the Aube, the Crown Prince of Württemberg had completed the movement that we had seen him start in the night of the 28th to 29th and the morning of 29th.  His whole corps had come to take a position between Trannes and Ailleville[17], to serve as support with the advanced post he had both pushed toward Dienville and Petit-Mesnil then to Fresnay and Maisons, so that they could possibly collect Blücher.  The Crown Prince, convinced that the banks of the Aube would not fail before long to be the scene of major operations and grave events, had also used his day to reconnoiter up to the heights ranging from Trannes up to the valley of the Aube and the whole country around Maizières and Fresnay.  He had found an excellent position which would have been suitable if Blücher had intended to avoid an affair at Brienne, and on which he could easily be joined by the corps of the army of Schwarzenberg.  The Prince had discovered on the right of this position, some posts of French cavalry established near Nully.  He had, in the afternoon, heard the cannons in the direction of Brienne and saw the glow produced by the burning of that town; but the fog had prevented him from following the vicissitudes of the fight from the heights of Fresnay, and he returned a night fall to his headquarters in Bar-sur-Aube.

Position of the IIIrd Corps, guards and reserves.  --Gyulay was at Bar-sur-Aube[18].  The advanced troops of the IIIrd Corps occupied Vendeuvre and extreme outposts were beyond La Villeneuve-au-Chêne. Before him, the French have solidly barricaded and strongly occupied the bridges of Courteranges and La Guillotière on the Barse and the bridge of the Maisons-Blanche on the Hozain.  They still seemed determined to keep Troyes, but they seemed to have abandoned the idea of ​​a debouchment.

Behind these two corps, the Russian grenadiers marched to Château-Villain; the infantry of the Guard on Luzy-sur-Marne; the division of light cavalry of the Guard on Jonchery; the Russian 1st Division of Cuirassiers and Prussian cavalry of the Guard on Rolampont; the 2nd Division of Cuirassiers on La Ferté-sur-Aube; the 3rd on Clairvaux; the infantry brigade of the Prussian Guard on Marnay-sur-Marne.  Barclay de Tolly, the Russian Emperor and King of Prussia had arrived at Chaumont.

Flying corps of Thurn at Chaource.  --Colloredo ordered to stop.  --As for Lieutenant-Colonel Thurn, covering the left of Gyulay and preceding from afar the corps of Colloredo, having seen his number of effectives melt away as Schwarzenberg could not send reinforcements, he was confined to small operations, to reconnaissance and a few posts.  He had moved the 29th from Villemorien on Chaource, and his patrols having found Les Bordes evacuated by the enemy, he counted on using the next day of the 30th, to veer to the left and head towards Troyes.[19]

If Schwarzenberg very early on the 29th, had ordered Wittgenstein and Wrede to unite to attack Joinville the 30th, Gyulay to stop between Vendeuvre and Bar-sur-Aube and be ready to march in a direction that he would provide to him later, the IVth Corps to complete its movement towards Trannes, Arsonval and Ailleville, despite fears that the situation gave him on his right, he would have had to stop worrying about the fate of his left.  Always fearing a move of the Emperor from Troyes to Dijon, he had ordered Colloredo to remain at his current positions until further notice.  By putting in a few words about the general situation, as he knew them on the 28th in the evening, he had taken care, it is true, to recommend to reconnoiter the roads leading to Bar-sur-Aube and Chaumont.[20]  It is fair to acknowledge that, it would certainly have been better to let Colloredo continue his march and go beyond Châtillon, and that Schwarzenberg had sinned by an excess of caution.  But he had not actually given up the idea to reuniting him on his left with that column.  Subsequently Colloredo camped in accordance with the orders of Schwarzenberg near Bar-sur-Seine.[21] His advanced guard, the 2nd Light Division, under the command of Prince Maurice Liechtenstein, had nevertheless continued on Bar-sur-Seine and pushed its outposts on the road to Troyes up to about the Saint -Parres lès Vaudes, which was where this General found out that the enemy outpost were at Maisons Blanches the morning of the 29th, they had encountered trenches and abattis on the roads, but they did not send patrols learn more.

The light division of Count Hardegg had, at the same time, his main body at Tonnerre; his outposts established at Flogny-la-Chapelle on the road from Saint-Florentin, were linked to their right with the flying corps of Thurn and watched all the roads leading to Tonnerre.

March of Yorck's corps on Saint Dizier.  --Before taking a quick look on the consequences of the day of the 29th, before discussing the various incidents which occurred at the grand headquarters in Chaumont and the council of war that was held there the night of 29th to 30th, it is important to see what had happened during the last twenty-four hours to the Ist Prussian Corps that we last left on the 28th between Bar-le-Duc, where we found the extreme vanguard, and Commercy where York had arrived with the bulk of his troops.

According instructions that Blücher had sent to Yorck, General Lanskoy was, as we remember, to stay until the 30th at Vitry and await the arrival of Yorck, while Blücher would effect on 28th, on the Aube on the side of Brienne, a junction with the main army.  It was only after these instructions that Yorck had to adjust his march and movements, since the past four days he was without news of the Field Marshal.  His situation was difficult because at the time, 29 January, at eight o'clock in the morning, he resolved to move on Saint-Dizier and send from his headquarters at Commercy to Prince William of Prussia, the following order:  "If," wrote Yorck, "the Emperor is actually at Saint-Dizier, it is likely that we will meet the enemy on the Saulx, up to Saudrupt and Stainville.  It appears from the enemy resistance and the information that has come to us during our journey, we have before us forces superior to ours; Your Highness will take position with his main body behind the Saulx to Saudrupt, and occupy Stainville with a flank guard.  The second brigade is to move, moreover, on Stainville in order provide support."

"General von Katzler and Colonel Count Henckel (the latter officer is placed for this purpose under the orders of Your Highness) seek to pass the Saulx and reconnoiter the enemy positions. There is every reason to expect from the prisoners we have taken of positive findings. The 7th and 1st Brigades (Horn and Pirch II) remain in reserve at Ligny, ready to be moved, according to circumstances, either before Bar-le-Duc or Stainville, whether to force the passage on Joinville on the left, or back on Vaucouleurs.[22]  So we should reconnoiter the roads leading to these points, or at least inquire about their viability."

"Your Royal Highness will seek to obtain specific information on the location of the corps of Wittgenstein and to keep in contact with him."

"If our march on Saint-Dizier by Bar-le-Duc is made without difficulty, Colonel Henckel, in accordance with orders given earlier, will run along the Ornain and cover the right flank of the corps.  But like the cavalry reserve which cannot be detached from the main body, it will only provide reconnaissance to send near Châlons.  It is essential gain achieve Saint-Dizier as soon as possible.  The main body will receive orders at Ligny for continuing its march."

Yorck had, in fact, prescribed for his main body a move on Saint-Aubin where he had thought to unite his brigades, while the reserve cavalry (General von Jürgass) would be at Ligny at noon and stay until the arrival of the main body with which it would continue to march from that point.  Yorck had taken care to add to this general words that characterize the situation well: "The troops are warned that the rears are  not safe: the commanders of columns are therefore to ensure that there are no stragglers and that convoys be escorted."[23]

The Ist Prussian Corps could, however, make its movements without encountering any resistance, since the French had already evacuated Bar-le-Duc, the 28th in the morning.  Horsemen of the vanguard pushed without finding anything before them, up to two leagues from Saint-Dizier, and the advanced guard with Prince William stopped in Bar-le-Duc.  Henckel had skirted the Ornain to below Sermaize and the cavalry of Katzler came up to the level of Chancenay, the 2nd Brigade to Stainville, the 1st and 7th around Ligny, where Yorck received in the course of the day news that would shed light on his position and enable him to act now and to make fully informed decisions.

His cavalry, in fact, had informed him that a French column, composed of troops of all arms and about 6,000 men strong, was still in Saint-Dizier.  The completion of the repairs on the bridges of Han-sur-Meuse, of Pont-sur-Meuse and Commercy, which were heavily guarded, secured him a line of retreat and communications.  Finally, he had been officially informed, first by Wittgenstein in the presence of Blücher at Brienne, then by Schwarzenberg, of the concentration of one part of the Army of Bohemia at Bar-sur-Aube. The situation of Yorck had therefore changed beyond recognition in twenty-four hours.  His role was now clearly defined, the direction he had to follow was imposed by the circumstances themselves.  That is why, when Wittgenstein asked him to assist him in his operations, he thought he could tell him that "the first cannon shots fired by the Ist Corps against Saint-Dizier will serve as a signal for the VIth Corps to attack" and he gave on the 29th in the evening, the orders which we shall speak when examining the operations and movements of the 30th.

Peculiarities of the Battle of Brienne.  --Regarding the same Battle of Brienne[24], it has some peculiarities which should be emphasized.  It is rare indeed to see in a single affair the two senior generals about to be taken or at least cut down by some horsemen.  One of them escaped by as providential a chance as that of the enemy, who seized by surprise the castle in which he had set up his headquarters.  As for the fury that was displayed and which Blücher and Napoleon, would almost relentlessly display to the death of both, it was far from being produced by the same causes in the Field Marshal, for the hatred he bore to the Emperor and France was in addition, that day, the feeling the errors he had committed were caused by that same hatred.  Until the last moment, until he was forced to yield to the evidence found by browsing the dispatches found on Colonel Bénard, Blücher had not realized the situation.  But, more frank than his critics and his most loyal panegyrists he recognized himself, after the events, the error he had committed, and, in his report sent from Arsonval, 31 January at 10 o'clock in the morning, to the Emperor of Austria, he confessed:  "That he had taken the movements taken against Lanskoy as simple demonstrations; he had Olsufiev go, the 28th, to Brienne, leaving Lanskoy on the road to Brienne and posted Sacken at Lesmont.[25]"  It is obvious, and he acknowledges it himself a little farther, that he occupied an inordinately extended front, and that, instead of stubbornly holding on the position of Brienne, it would have been wiser and more reasonable , having entertained the French when they appeared at Maizières, after having occupied them by deploying the cavalry of Pahlen supported by a few batteries, to file from the break of day, Sacken from Lesmont and execute in good order and in echelon on Dienville and Trannes a retirement that could have been done without too much difficulty and at the cost of a simple rearguard fight.  Such a retreat would have allowed him to reach more quickly, without incurring heavy losses, the IIIrd and IVth Corps, which he would have in hand on 29th at night.  He would then be in a situation pretty much similar to that he was placed by the orders of the Allied sovereigns and Schwarzenberg when they  instructed him to deliver, 1 February the Battle of Rothière.

In tactical terms, Blücher and Napoleon were both seen forced to commit their troops in succession as and when they arrive on the terrain of struggle; but we cannot ignore that if the strong resistance put up by the Russians by Olsufiev to the first attack of Duhesme allowed Blücher to remain in his position for the arrival of the troops Sacken, it was mostly his quick eye and his judicious ability that allowed him to make use of all his cavalry, to quickly take advantage of the fault that the French had committed in sending them on all their right, that had allowed him to be able to remain at Brienne into the night.

With regard to the Emperor, it was asked why he so strongly attacked the Field Marshal he had hoped to surprise when he executed his crossing of the river, why he had not awaited the arrival of Gerard, and why, finally, he had brought against Blücher about a third of his army.  A careful examination of the situation can respond to these criticisms.

Napoleon recognized in the early hours of his arrival at the army, it was urgent to defeat Blücher and act before he could affect a junction with Schwarzenberg.  He did not know exactly what corps Blücher had brought with him in his movement toward the Marne and the Aube; but he knew the importance of not losing a moment, and that only by the speed and maintenance of his course that he may perhaps still be able to fall on the rear of the Army of Silesia. That is also why he threw his troops on it, as and when they arrive in line, he attacked, even though Gerard could not rally with him the day before, although Marmont was detached on the side of Wassy and although Mortier could not (he did not know, it is true) execute his moves and join him.  It is clear that until the last moment he hoped, by moving to Brienne, to halve the army of Blücher and overcome this energetic and desperate resistance of the Russians who alone allowed the Field Marshal to leave the critical position in which he placed himself and fall back on the Army of Bohemia.  "All this is natural and simple," Clausewitz said about it, because he obviously believed that in the situation of the Emperor, the offense alone could bring him salvation.




[1] Report of Victor; Mémoires de Grouchy; PETIET, Journal of Operations of the Light Cavalry Division of the 5th Corps; Kurzgefasste Darstellung der Kriegsbegebenheiten der schlesischen Armee. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., I, 31.)

[2] Report of Major General von Walsleben, commanding the vanguard of the Crown Prince of Württemberg, to Prince Schwarzenberg, from Dienville, 29 January 1814, 3 o'clock in the afternoon. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., I, 657-a.)

[3] K. K. Kriegs Archiv., I, 652.

[4] Major Mareschal commits a mistake here.  The IVth Corps (Crown Prince of Württemberg) had no one at Vallières, a small village which lies southwest of Bar-sur-Seine, near Chaource.  There was at that time on this side the flying corps of Lieutenant-Colonel Count Thurn.  The Major probably wanted to talk about Vallières-Lanvour, north of Lusigny but the outposts of the IIIrd Corps that operated on that side, did not go beyond La Villeneuve-au-Chêne and therefore could not have crossed the Barse the 29th.

[5] Report of the Duke of Bellune on the fight of Brienne; Brienne, 30 January.

[6] STÄRKE, Eintheilung und Tagesbegebenheiten der Haupt- Armee in Monate Januar.  (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., I, 30.)

[7] Field Marshal Blücher to Prince Schwarzenberg.  --"Arsonval, 30 January 1814, 8 o'clock in the morning.  --I just sent yesterday to Your Highness by Lieutenant Pantchoulitcheff that the enemy marched right on Brienne already occupied by 5,000 men with 24 guns."

"The Lieutenant-General Count Pahlen had covered the march with his cavalry, of the corps of General von Sacken from Lesmont on Brienne, and the enemy was forced to devote all his cavalry on his right to oppose that of Pahlen. This mass of cavalry was considerable and stronger than Count Pahlen."

"When the enemy was closer to the city, General Pahlen whose mission was completed at that time, retired, through Brienne, and came to form on my right wing, while the enemy instead , kept his cavalry between the roadway from Lesmont to Brienne and that from Maizières to Brienne."

"I took advantage of this fault and while the enemy's right attacked the town of Brienne, I threw myself with all the cavalry of General Count Pahlen on its left wing and took off the two batteries that were on that side (a).  But I do not know how many pieces that he possibly got back, because I absolutely lacked the means to take away these guns."

"The prisoners that we made in that direction and who apparently belonged to the Guard, said that the Emperor himself commanded the army that attacked Brienne.  This army would consist of 80,000 men, among whom were the troops that the Emperor had reviewed in Paris on the 13th, the 2nd Corps and the Imperial Guard from Saint-Dizier.  The French army would, according to them, form into three columns, one going to Joinville, the other directed to the left, and finally the 3rd, that of the Emperor, would be strongest."

"The French right, while the cavalry of Pahlen charged their left, was brought against the vineyards of the chateau of Brienne, and had managed to capture some of the town that I attacked and retook at 11 o'clock at night."

"But taking the dispositions that I had previously agreed upon, I then approached Bar-sur-Aube."

"My infantry has been established from Arsonval to Trannes; my cavalry is at Brienne and on the plain of Trannes."

"I think the enemy has withdrawn at least its left up to Maizières and if he has decided to move forward today, will be on line very late and will not reach my infantry."

"Your Highness can be certain that the bulk of the enemy is now between Brienne and Saint-Dizier..."

"P.-S. -I will keep in any case, at whatever the cost, the defile of Trannes." (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., I, 675.)

(a) The Kriegsbegebenheiten (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., I, 30) are also not categorical about the taking of cannons and only say about it:  "In the evening, Blücher with his cavalry attempted an attack against the French left and captured for a moment of some cannons.  Napoleon continued his attack on Brienne by the right."

The Kurzgefasste Darstellung der Kriegsbegebenheiten der schlesischen Armee (Ibid., I, 31) Confirms almost exactly the story of Tagesbegebenheiten.  Here is how it reports these facts:  "Blücher decided to defend Brienne until night and then retired on Trannes.  He moved, therefore, the cavalry on his right, vigorously attacking the French left, with no cavalry, and took some pieces.  But Ney continues to press the left of the Army of Silesia in Brienne, which was on fire and that he took possession of at midnight.  Blücher ordered a retreat."'

[8] The Emperor writing to King Joseph, 31 January, from Brienne, said about the Battle of Brienne and the capture of the castle: "The affair of Brienne was very hot.  I lost 3,000 men.  The enemy has lost 4,000 to 5,000 men.  I pursued the enemy halfway down the road of Bar-sur-Aube...there was a point at which Blücher and his entire staff could had been taken.  The nephew of Chancellor Hardenberg was taken nearby.  They were on foot and did not know I was with the army..." (Correspondance, no 21160.)

Count Nostitz, in his Tagebuch, devoted several pages to the episode of Château de Brienne: "The battle seemed over," he writes, "the fire was almost completely out, the Field-Marshal returned to the castle and directed most of his officers to return to town and prescribed the work necessary to contain the fire.  Accompanied by General von Gneisenau, he ascended to the upper floors of the castle, to take one last look at the positions of the enemy.  At the same time he had ordered to put the horses in the stable.  Knowing that my comments were certainly unwelcome, leaving it to the others to counter the possibility of a terrible danger, I took it upon myself to lead the horses behind one wing of the chateau, so they would be on hand.  General Count Goltz, Colonel Count Schwerin and I stayed on the plateau in front of the castle, staring at the burning town at our feet."

"A few minutes had barely passed when a bullet whistled past our ears.  None of us gave it a moment's notice.  But soon after, the whistling became more frequent.  Count von Goltz ran to the castle to get the Field Marshal out.  As for me, I moved the horses.  When Blücher began in the saddle, one of his orderlies was hit by a bullet just steps from us.  The bullets came from the vineyards or the chateau itself, forcing us to move towards the town."

"A Cossack non-commissioned officer, Antonoff, led the march.  Then came General Count Goltz, I followed with an orderly.  Colonel Count Schwerin, who had dismissed his horse, was on foot and walking beside the orderly. The Field Marshal, General von Gneisenau and some orderlies brought up the rear."

"The fire in the town lit the path we followed.  All the rest of the battlefield was plunged into darkness."

"We had just taken a few steps, when Antonoff, who had taken the lead, came back and spewed out in bad German, these words that gave us concern:  " Nicht Rousky, alles Franzousky" (no Russians, all French).  At this point, we already saw a troop of cavalry a short distance from us.  Our situation was most critical.  Behind us, the castle occupied probably by the enemy, before us, the cavalry arriving in the city and heading towards us.  Our only resource was a narrow path, enclosed between houses and leading to the countryside.  He should have been hurrying, but despite our pleas, the Field-Marshal continued to walk:  "If I must run, he responded to us, it's good that I see at least one that requires me to do it."  It was then that Gneisenau had the idea to ask him if he intended to be seen as a prisoner to the Parisians.  The general hit the right nerve.  A few minutes later we were in the fields and not much later reached the troops of Sacken."

The Field-Marshal, adds Nostitz, was so furious at having had to flee, unable to provide some saber blows, that refusing to believe in the presence of the French at Brienne, he charged Nostitz to reoccupy the castle. This attempt failed as had that of Olsufiev."

Count Nostitz has also taken care to leave out from his journal the part which reflects the way Count Hardenberg  was taken by the French.  Directed by Blücher to monitor the work of extinguishing the fire, he went back to the chateau to report on his mission when he was stopped by six horsemen.  Hardenberg, who in the darkness, had not noticed their uniforms, responded with the words: "Preussischer Offizier."  He was summoned to surrender.  All resistance was impossible, Hardenberg asked about the general who was in command and requested to be led to him. Brought to General Lefebvre-Desnouettes, he had the presence of mind to tell him that Blücher was with his troops on the outskirts of the town.  Hardenberg was almost immediately taken to the Chief of Staff of the Emperor.

Tagebuch des Generals der Kavallerie Grafen von Nostitz. (Kriegsgeschichtliche Einzelschriften, 1884, Heft V, pages 76 to 81.)

[9] We know that the Emperor had, in the course of the afternoon, when he emerged at about three o'clock in the woods of Vallentigny on the way to Maizières, narrowly escaped being kidnapped with his escort by the Cossacks who would have certainly been cheerful in success, if they had not been stopped in connection with the troops of the division Meunier.

[10] The presence of mind of Colonel Benançon, Chief of Staff of Sacken, alone saved the Russian general.  When he was leaving Brienne, Sacken and Benançon are surrounded by French cavalry.  Colonel Benançon, a Frenchmen in the service of Russia, then exclaimed:  "Make way, we are yours."  The ranks of the French opened a while: the General and Colonel Benançon managed to pass before the cavalrymen who had not realized their mistake.  Part of the escort of Sacken was nevertheless reached, sabered and taken.  That's when the Colonel Rochechouart was killed. Tagebuch des Generals der Kavallerie Grafen von Nostitz. (Kriegsgeschichtliche Einzelschriften, 1884. Heft V, pages 81-82).

[11] General Lefebvre-Desnouettes was also among the number wounded.

[12] STÄRKE, Eintheilung und Tagesbegebenheiten der Haupt Armee im Monate Januar (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., I, 30.)

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

[14] Schwarzenberg to Blücher, Chaumont, 31 January. (Ibid., 1, 724.)

[15] STÄRKE, Eintheilung und Tagesbegebenheiten der Haupt Armee im Monate Januar (Ibid., XIII, 30.)

[16] Although in his monograph on Wrede, page 334, General Heilmann pretends that Wrede was aware of the Battle of Brienne from the 30th at night, his aide and confidant, Major Prince of Thurn and Taxis , says in his diary, on 29th of January at night:  "We learned then that Blücher, attacked very strongly had to abandon the bridges of Lesmont and Brienne, and fall back on Trannes, up to the course of the Aube." (Tagebuch Prince Taxis. -K. K. Kriegs Archiv., I, 32.)

[17] STÄRKE, Eintheilung und Tagesbegebenheiten der Haupt Armee im Monate Januar. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., I, 30).

[18] STÄRKE, Eintheilung und Tagesbegebenheiten der Haupt Armee im Monate Januar. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., I, 30).

[19] Thurn to Schwarzenberg, Chaource, 29 January, 6 o'clock at night. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., I, 685.)

[20] Prince of Schwarzenberg to Count Colloredo: Chaumont, 29 January 1814.  --"Field-Marshal Blücher was at Brienne, but the enemy on the 28th has driven General Lanskoy from Saint-Dizier and pursued them to Dommartin. Another enemy column dislodged the light troops of General Count Wittgenstein from Joinville and occupied that point."

"The Vth and VIth Corps attack Joinville tomorrow, 30 January, and Prince Schwarzenberg has decided to suspend all movement of the army until the retaking of Joinville."

"Count Colloredo will remain on his current positions until further orders and will reconnoiter the routes of Bar-sur-Aube and Chaumont." (Ibid., I. 670.)

[21] Colloredo to Schwarzenberg, Châtillon, 29 January 1814.  (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., I, 656.)

To this dispatch was attached the piece that can be read below, which demonstrates that everywhere momentum was building and that if the revival of the national spirit had been long in coming, patriotism had regained the upper hand throughout.

Information on the inhabitants of Dijon hostile to the Allies (provided by Colloredo):

"1st  The one named Laguisse, hatter by profession and residing in Dijon, has offered to raise an independent company and go on the rear of the army, burn the parks of our reserves and other establishments, attack and massacre our convoy escorts ;"

"2nd  Another inhabitant of the same city, a member of the Legion of Honor, who lost his right leg, but works fine on a wooden leg, living on the Chaplotte Road, named Voltaire, sought to rouse the people on the arrival of the troops of Their Majesties and wanted to march against them;"

"3rd  The owner of the factory of Mulhouse-sur-Rhin, looking to serve the Allies, profiting from the confidence he had inspired, reported to the enemy of all that he has seen or heard."

Reporting of a dangerous spy (Colloredo to Schwarzenberg):

"Morel of Velmont, 36 years old, 5 feet 4 inches tall, brown hair, low forehead, blue eyes, long and fat nose, big mouth, long chin, stretched figure, dark complexion, tired face, wearing a very short gray clothing, long pants in common cloth, blue socks, brown and black Manchester waistcoat. (Ibid., ad I, 656.)

[22] It is clear from these indications that Yorck thought to deal with all eventualities and ignorant of what had happened, or was preparing to march ahead, or veer left, or cover, if he was compelled to retire to the Meuse.

[23] Here is what, moreover, we find that date in the Journal of the March of the 1st Prussian Dragoons from Lithuania that was part of the reserve cavalry of the Ist Corps under the command of General von Jürgass, arriving 28 January around Ligny:

"Until this time the call to arms made by Napoleon and the levée en masse had no effect; but it was still not only (caused) from our arrival here. Our troops began to suffer cruelly.  All the villages were deserted, the inhabitants had fled with what they had being carried away into the nearby woods, waiting and watching the passage of the stragglers that they massacred and they attacked small detachments armed with pitchforks and scythe.  They even tried to assassinate the men who forced them to stay in the cantonments; one of our jägers only today escaped death through providence.  The result was that we are obliged to keep more closely together and to guard ourselves more attentively and confine ourselves to bivouac.  It is fair to add that this was something very natural, since we now approached the bulk of enemy forces."

[24] Clausewitz pretty strongly criticizes the isolation in which Blücher was left at Brienne and traces the responsibility to Schwarzenberg. "What Blücher did," he says in his Strategic Critique, "from the moment he was abandoned and on the verge of being crushed by the French at Brienne, became a more serious strategic mistake as the decisive moment came closer, increasing the danger further.  The closer the crisis, the more tightened the movement must be, the more calculated the combinations must be."

It seems, however, that in fact, Clausewitz's criticism is for much more the Generalissimo than Blücher.  It is true that Schwarzenberg could have perhaps lent support to him by pushing the IIIrd and IVth Corps; but the Generalissimo was still unaware of what forces the Emperor deployed and had feared to be forced against his will to deliver a battle in which he was far from being prepared.  On the other hand, it is certain that Blücher alone, while avoiding the orders of the Generalissimo, in contravention of his instructions and stubbornly preceding the Great Army instead of uniting with it, was the cause of what happened, and that, without the taking of Colonel Bénard, he would infallibly been surprised by Napoleon and crushed only for his own fault.

[25] Blücher to the Emperor of Austria, Arsonval, 31 January. (K. K. Kriegs Archiv., I, 726, b.)

Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2011

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