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The Napoleon Series > Book Reviews > General Interest Books

The Fall of Napoleon: The Allied Invasion of France, 1813–1814

By Michael V. Leggiere

Michael V. Leggiere. The Fall of Napoleon: The Allied Invasion of France, 1813–1814. (Vol. 1, Series: Cambridge Military Histories.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 686 pages. ISBN-13# 9780521875424. Hardcover. $35.00

The Fall of Napoleon: The Allied Invasion of France, 1813–1814 Cover

In 2005, Cambridge University Press inaugurated its new series entitled Cambridge Military Histories. The series' goal is to publish outstanding works of research on warfare throughout the ages and throughout the world, taking a broad approach to history and examining war in its military, political and economic aspects. Over the last two years the Series produced five titles and two more are scheduled for early 2008. The most recent addition to the Series is the book The Fall of Napoleon: The Allied Invasion of France, 1813–1814 by Dr. Michael V. Leggiere. Dr. Leggiere is one of the leading historians of a new generation in the United States and his prior publications include Napoleon and Berlin: The Franco-Prussian War in North Germany, 1813 (University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), which won the 2002 Literary Prize of the International Napoleonic Society.

The 1814 Campaign is considered one of Napoleon's masterpieces. After suffering a devastating defeat in Russia, Emperor Napoleon fought another exhausting campaign in Germany in 1813 where he faced the allied forces of Russia, Prussia, Austria and Sweden. Despite achieving initial victories in the spring and summer of 1813, the Emperor of the French was surrounded at Leipzig and defeated in the ensuing Battle of the Nations in October 1813. Dr. Leggiere's previous publication, Napoleon and Berlin, dealt with events of the fall of 1813 and discussed Napoleon's preoccupation with Berlin and its importance in his overall failure in the War of Liberation. The Fall of Napoleon continues the theme and picks ups almost where the prior book ended. Napoleon is defeated and driven back to France while the Allies ponder crossing the Rhine River and invading France. The Fall of Napoleon, thus, discusses the events of December 1813 and January 1814 as both sides prepared for the final clash.

Despite its importance, the English-language historiography of 1814 Campaign is not as extensive as that of Napoleon's other campaigns, particularly those of 1805 and 1812. The most recent publication on the campaign is a French-language book La Campagne de France de Napoléon (Paris: Bartillat, 2003) but in English language, besides articles dealing details of the campaign, general histories of the Napoleonic Wars and popular histories of John F. Westmorland, James P. Lawford, Peter Young and R. F. Delderfield,[1] hardly any academic books had been published on this topic in the last ninety years. F. Loraine Petre's classic account Napoleon at Bay, 1814, (1914), is still widely used and reprinted, as is Henry Houssaye's magnum opus 1814, published in 1888.[2] So a scholarly account of the 1814 Campaign is long overdue and Dr. Leggiere's book is godsend for that purpose. In his introduction, author notes the existing gap in historiography and justly argues that his book provides the first modern, complete, account of the campaign.

Existing studies of the campaign tend to concentrate on Napoleon and usually follow his operations, ignoring the events of January 1814 as well as the complexities of the coalition fighting in the first few weeks of invasion. The book successfully addresses both these issues. Furthermore, early on in the book, author explains that he will not examine experiences of soldiers nor provide tactical level discussion of battles. Instead, The Fall of Napoleon seeks to look behind the decision-making process, political struggles and intrigues of the generals and politicians and concentrate on strategic and operational level.

 The Fall of Napoleon is divided into 17 chapters. Chapter 1 outlines the early history of the Napoleonic Wars and describes events leading to the invasion of France, specifically Napoleon's defeat in Russia and Germany and formation of the Sixth Coalition. It explains challenges facing Napoleon, who had to reform his forces and prepare defenses of France, and Allies, who, in early November, pondered whether to cross the Rhine River and pursue Napoleon into France. The chapter also shows signs of increasing tensions and discord among the Allies as Austria and Russia vied for power. At Frankfurt, Klemens von Metternich schemed to have Kaiser Francis of Austria to arrive before Emperor Alexander of Russia since, as he explained, "the first to arrive has a step up" (p. 21); still, the Russian spoiled these plans and paraded into Frankfurt on 5 November. Chapter 2 continues this discussion of the Allies friction and provides fascinating details on the development of the Allied strategic plans by Karl Emil von Löwenhielm, August Wilhelm Anton Gneisenau, Joseph von Radetsky and Karl Friedrich Knesebeck. Author goes into details exploring the great council of war at Frankfurt and shows how each of the plans was discussed and undermined or supported by respective parties.  The decision to invade France was far from being unanimously embraced by the Allies, who argued whether it was better to sue for peace, await reinforcements or charge headlong in pursuit of Napoleon. Once the decision to invade was made, further disagreements arouse over how to advance, wage a thorough campaign besieging fortresses or to march directly to Paris. While Austrians were in favor of a more gradual execution of the campaign, Prussians desired to bring a quick end to the war. Political considerations constituted major elements in these plans and they are delved into in Chapter 3, which compares and contrasts the Allied leaders and their political goals. Author criticizes the Allies for wasting precious time in developing plan and ultimately failing to advance directly to Paris, which most certainly would have brought a quick ending to the campaign. Chapter 4 provides an overview of the French side and describes Napoleon's efforts to rally the country on the eve of the invasion and raise a new army to fight the war.

Before delving into the invasion, author provides an illuminating overview of the French and Allied armies deployed on the two sides of the Rhine River. Chapter 5 discusses the Left Bank and shows Marshal Auguste Marmont's actions as he exerted his authority along the middle Rhine, Marshal Etienne Macdonald's preparations on the northeastern frontier of the empire and Marshal Claude Victor-Perrin's on the upper Rhine. The opposite, Allied, side and its preparations on the Right Bank are discussed in Chapter 6. After exploring the losses of the previous campaign, author explains the composition of the Allied forces, politics behind merging Russia, Austria and Prussian forces and describes key commanders, such Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher, and Karl zu Schwarzenberg. Chapters 7 through 9 contain discussion of the operations on the Lower, Upper and Middle Rhine respectively while the rest of the book contains the most valuable portion of the book – detailed account of actions in the first weeks of the invasions. The reader will appreciate author's decision to organize his material geographically since it allows for a focused discussion of actions in a given theater of operations. Thus, Alsace and France-Comté is dealt in chapter 10, the Vosges and Saône in chapter 11, Lorraine (chapter 12), the Saar and the Moselle (chapter 13), Belgium (chapter 14), the Marne (chapter 15) and Bourgogne, the Rhône and the Aube (chapter 16). Each chapter follows the Allied and French armies, explains their conditions and challenges their leaders and local commanders faced. The book concludes with the negotiations between Napoleon and the Allies and the Protocols of Langres. Although author concentrates on military operations and maneuvers of armies, he also provides thorough discussion of political maneuvering and intrigues that the Allies and Napoleon were involved in. At the same time, the focus of the book is on the conflict between Napoleon and the Allies on the Rhine River and it does not deal with the British operations in northern Spain and Duke of Wellington's preparations for the invasion of southern France.

The author intertwines military operations, discussions of political schemes and observations on generals and statesmen to produce an engaging and clear narrative. It looks both at plans each side developed in a specific region, the problems local commanders faced and resulting situation by the end of January 1814. The book should not to be taken lightly and reading it all at once will be a daunting task. Due to the nature of the topic, the book contains numerous details and anyone researching the 1814 Campaign will be grateful to have this resource at hand. This is a book that benefits from re-reading and consulting.

Leggiere allows the reader to gain a better understanding on how the Allies developed their plans, fought the war and barely tolerated each other. The events of January 1814 allow us to understand why the rest of the campaign developed the way it did and how designs and positions of Russia, Austria and Prussia on the future of France gradually developed and adjusted. The reader can follow Metternich's masterful schemes against Napoleon and his allies Prussia and Russia and their end results. Leggiere deftly describes how the early alliance between Metternich and Alexander gave way to growing tensions, which the author calls a "cold war" (p.555). Indeed, Alexander's desire to defeat France militarily and expand his empire into Poland were contrary to Metternich's own plans of maintaining a relatively strong France as a counter-balance to Russia. Leggiere, thus explains, that to limit the Russian sovereign's influence on military operations, Metternich and Kaiser Francis "conspired to keep the tsar as far as possible from Schwarzenberg's headquarters" (p. 556). This tactic did not work well since controlling the sovereign of Russia proved to be quite difficult.

As part of Alexander-Metternich rivalry, the book also explores the issue of Russian support for former Napoleonic general-turn-Swedish crown prince Jean Baptiste Bernadotte becoming a ruler of France. This issue, like no other, exasperated Metternich, who, as Leggiere argues, "interpreted it in the worst light: France would become a Russian satellite. In the least, with Bernadotte on the French throne as a result of Alexander's patronage, the possibility remained of another Tilsit in which Russia and France divided Europe between them" (pp.556-557). Metternich's letters on this topic are quite fascinating, for example on 16 January 1814, he wrote to Schwarzenberg, "It is not in our interest to sacrifice a single man to place Bernadotte on the throne of France. Do you believe I am mad? Well not quite, madness is the order of the day!" (p. 557). To counter Alexander's intentions, Metternich now saw Count of Provence as the only viable option for France after Napoleon.

The author is not shy of passing judgment when necessary and his characterization of general and statesmen, be it Metternich, Schwarzenberg, Alexander or Blucher are illuminating. He explains that Schwarzenberg and Metternich developed an intimate relationship over the years. The former combined years of military and diplomatic experience which were of great use to Metternich, who insisted on Schwarzenberg's appointment as Allied commander-in-chief, although it caused much controversy and disregarded many more senior generals. Although Schwarzenberg is often criticized by historians, Leggiere tries to place him in a much-needed context, noting that in 1813 this general's "task was neither easy nor enviable yet he managed to limit the problems posed by a heterogeneous coalition" (p.158), which came handy in 1814. Indeed the Austrian general's letter of 5 September 1813 could be easily applied to his experiences in 1814: "It really is inhuman what I must tolerate and bear surrounded as I am by fools, eccentric projectors, intriguers, asses, babblers, and niggling critics. Vermin in countless number gnaw at me and torment me to the very marrow of my bones." Also noteworthy is the author's judgment of Blucher. Leggiere argues that Blucher, an archetypal aggressive Prussian commander, and his equally hard-hitting Chief of Staff Gneisenau "formed the best military marriage of commander and staff officer until Hindenburg and Ludendorff 100 years later. The two officers functioned as one: Gneisenau provided the intellect and Blucher the charisma." (p. 154)

While critical of the Allies, the author is equally judicious of Napoleon and analysis his actions and decisions with a sharp eye. Thus, when discussing Napoleon's preparations for the invasion and his famous "General Instructions" to his marshals, Leggiere explains that the "Instructions", despite its uncomplicated and concise nature that is often lauded by historians, proved detrimental since it was drafted four weeks after the Allies crossed the Rhine and, when it finally reached the marshals, "their erroneous understanding of their task had rendered the situation unsalvageable in view of their weak forces, the general demoralization of their troops and their own mental exhaustion"  (p. 412). Leggiere faults Napoleon for remaining in Paris for too long and falling "several steps behind the flow of events" in the opening stage of the campaign. Thus a plan for the defense of Alsace was prepared after the Allies had already occupied the province while his mid-January orders to protect Épinal and Vosges were based on dated intelligence and ignored the fact that the Allies already controlled them. Indeed, as author puts it, in January 1814, "the French army desperately needed General Bonaparte in the field." The following month, its wish will be fulfilled as Napoleon will put on his Italian boots, but that is the subject of the future Volume 2. Overall, reading author's account of French preparations, one cannot but admire Napoleon's resolve to fight the Allies despite the overwhelming odds and his enterprise and ability in rallying his forces and resources.

Throughout the book, Dr. Leggiere demonstrates remarkable knowledge of his subject and familiarity with sources. The book contains over 1,800 endnotes, almost two thirds of them references to archival documents, memoirs or correspondences. Fluent in several languages, the author makes a good use of French, German and English sources to support his arguments. Indeed, a quick glance over bibliography reveals that author has done a masterful job of researching in archives throughout Europe, including Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preussicher Kulturbesitz zu Berlin, Bayerisch Hauptstaatsarchiv, Österreichisches Staatsarchiv, Service Historique de l'Armée de Terre, Archives Nationales, and Russian State Military Historical Archive. In addition to over sixty printed primary sources, author consulted personal papers of Gneisenau, Blucher and Count von Bülow, as well as over 140 secondary sources.

The last portion of The Fall of Napoleon consists of an anthology of translated original letters and documents, such as a letter from Clausewitz to Gneisenau, Radetsky's memo of October 1813 on the Allied operations across the Rhine, Gneisenau's "Great Question of the Day" letter to Emperor Alexander as well as Frankfurt Proclamation, Bülow's proclamations to the Dutch and Belgians, Gneisenau's letters to Radetsky and Knesebeck, Napoleon's letter to Metternich proposing an armistice, etc.  These documents provide an interested reader with additional details that would have been out of place in the main text. We see the arguments made by Gneisenau, Radetsky and Müffling in favor of their plans as well as early propaganda messages on part of the both sides. Thus, Bülow told the Belgians that "the just punishment of the Heavens has reached the One who out of pride and insolence has devastated the world with a godless hand and destroyed everything that is sacred as soon as his devastating and bloody plan encountered any resistance." He appealed to the Dutchmen to rise up against "oppression" and described the Allied army as "the successor of that of the great Gustavus Adolphus" which turned the tide of the Thirty Years War in the 1630s (pp. 636-637). On the opposite side, the French authorities urged the mayors of border departments "To Arms! It is the only cry that one must hear; it is the battle cry of all Frenchmen!" while Marshal Macdonald inspired his soldiers by reminding them of "twenty years of glory, the innumerable feats of arms that they illustrate, and that the enemy still fears your valor and your intrepidity…." (p. 641)

The book greatly benefits from over two dozens of maps that are clear and easy to use. The maps are scattered throughout the book and, beyond regional snapshots, those showing situations on specific dates (20 December 1813, January 4, 9, 12, 14, 17, 20 and 25 1814) are particularly valuable since they reveal the gradual unfolding of the campaign. The book is sparsely illustrated with fifteen portraits (mainly of French and Allied leaders and key commanders) and would have benefited from a more generous number of illustrations.

Overall, Cambridge University Press must be lauded for agreeing to publish a two-volume study of the campaign at a time when many publishers are reluctant to contract even a single volume work, and for signing a talented researcher to write it. Dr. Leggiere produced an excellent study of the 1814 Campaign, which no doubt will become one of the key texts on this topic. Anyone interested in the Napoleonic Wars as well as in general military history and coalition fighting will find this book indispensable. General reader will most probably find the book's level of detail daunting and difficult to follow. This book is designed for military historians and Napoleonic scholars, who will find it useful for the very same reason. As mentioned above, this is a book that a serious researcher of the last days of the First Empire will return to on regular basis. Judging from the first volume, the second part of the book, covering events in February and March, promises to be of great quality and we can only wish for it to appear as soon as possible.

Reviewed by Alexander Mikaberidze.

[1] John Fane Westmorland, Military Operations, 1813-1814, Tyne Wear: Worley, 1996; James Philip Lawford and Peter Young, Napoleon: The Las Campaigns, 1813-1815, New York: Crown Publishers, 1977; R.F. Derderfield, Imperial Sunset: The Fall of Napoleon, 1813-1814. Philadelphia: Chilton, 1968.

[2] F. Loraine Peter, Napoleon at Bay, 1814, New York: John Lane Co, 1914); Henry Houssaye, 1814, Paris: Perrin, 1888


Placed on the Napoleon Series: December 2007