The 1814 Campaign in France saw Napoleon desperately struggling for his survival as the Allies closed in after his defeat at the Battle of the Nations in 1813. Many historians avow that Napoleon's fight to retain his throne and his Empire during the early months of 1814, remain his greatest hour, despite that ultimately he failed.
During the months of January to late March, Napoleon executed a series of maneuvers and fought a series of battles which demonstrated his genius for warfare at the highest level as both a strategist and a tactician. Fighting against the overwhelming odds of two hostile armies converging on Paris, Napoleon moved with lightening speed, parrying and throwing back one adversary before lunging to the next. Despite his brilliance, however, he lacked the manpower by this late stage of the Napoleonic Wars to deliver a decisive blow, and, although his enemies were shaken and severely mauled, they were able to recover and to eventually unite with their superior strength before Paris and bring the war to its conclusion. The capture of Paris by the Allies saw the demise of the First Empire and the exile of Napoleon Bonaparte to the island of Elba.
After having been cornered at Leipzig by the combined might of the European powers, Napoleon had suffered a crushing defeat at the so called 'Battle of the Nations' during the autumn of 1813 and had been forced to withdraw his battered army back across the Rhine and abandon his bid to retain control of Germany. Now, with the allies amassing their forces on the Rhine, poised to invade the last stronghold of his Empire, France itself, Napoleon took stock of his reduced circumstances and was not found wanting...
There were those, both within and without France, who said that the writing was on the wall, but they had not reckoned on the formidable will of Napoleon, who ever the supreme optimist, was determined that he would not be subdued without a fight. With the bulk of his experienced troops either tied up fighting the Duke of Wellington in Southern France or else locked up in garrisons within Germany, the Netherlands and the border fortresses of France, Napoleon was only able to scrape trogether some 80,000 hastily trained conscripts, which were christened the Marie Louises to oppose the onslaught of the more than 350,000 seasoned troops that the allies could field.
Despite the overwhelming numbers of the Allies, Napoleon appeared undaunted by the titanic task which lay before him and was still confident of his abilities for he was able to write to Marshal Marmont in mid November to say "At the present we are not in a position to do anything, but by the first fortnight in January we shall be in a position to achieve a great deal"
However, when the Allies offered peace based upon the natural boundaries of France, the Rhine, the Alps and the Pyrenees in mid-November, Napoleon appeared to pause for thought, but was then subsequently informed by the allies that peace could only be made upon the basis of the 'frontiers of 1792.' Not surprisingly, and perhaps as the Allies foresaw, Napoleon rejected the terms, informing his minister of foreign affairs Caulaincourt who was negotiating on his behalf that "I think it is doubtful whether the allies are in good faith, or that England wants peace... I certainly desire it, but it must be long lasting and honourable. The allies wish to reduce France to a state by which she can no longer take her place amonst the powers of Europe. I will neither degrade France nor myself by accepting such dishonourable terms."
But there were some his politicians and ministers who derided Napoleon, particularly Joseph Laine who issued an adress in which he attacked Napoleon's ruinous policies. The Emperor, said Laine, should make peace for France and himself on any terms he could get. Napoleon, furious, flared up and spoke severely to members of the legislative assembly: "It is I who can save France and not you... Your commission has humiliated me more than my enemies. It adds irony to insult. It states that adversity is the true councillor of kings. That may be so, but to apply it to me in the present circumstances is an act of cowardice."
Heedless of his detractors, Napoleon also had cause for hope because he knew through Caulaincourt that the Allies yet contained divisions within their ranks which might be exploited. The Tsar Alexander thought only of avenging Moscow and dictating peace terms within a humbled Paris. Blucher followed much the same line, burning with a desire born of hatred to avenge the humiliating defeat of Prussia in 1806. Yet, Blucher's sovereign, King Frederick William III of Prussia, was wary of giving Napoleon a chance to recoup his fortunes on the battlefield and win back all he had lost. As for the Austrians, both Metternich and the Emperor Francis II harboured a wish to retain Napoleon upon the throne to help preserve the balance of power in Europe from a looming Russia whom they feared might swallow Poland, and Prussia who might snatch Saxony. Britain too wished to preserve the balance of power if at all possible. With this in mind, Napoleon reasoned that the tenuous alliance might well fall apart on its own accord, and if not, a series of stunning victories over the Allies on French soil might compell them to lay down their arms and allow him to dictate a peace on his own terms.
With proclamations that they came as liberators, their only enemy being Napoleon, the Allies with some trepidation for they still feared Napoleon's prowess on the field of battle, crossed the Rhine in late December, brushing aside the light forces of Marshal Marmont and Marshal Victor with relative ease. They planned a three pronged offensive against the French Emperor: Schwarzenberg, commanding the Army of Bohemia with 210,000 Austrian's from the Upper Rhine, Bernadotte with 60,000 from the Netherlands and Blucher leading the 75,000 strong Prussian/Russian Silesian Army army advancing from Lorraine, all converging on Paris. And if that was not enough, The Duke of Wellington threatened the South of France where Marshal Soult was holding the line.
With so many signs of treachery upon his doorstep, Napoleon dared not for the moment leave his capital, when so many whom he had raised to prominent positions were seeking to both undermine his authority and selfishly insure their own positions against the possibility of his downfall. The picture changed when he received news that Victor and Marmont had been driven to seek refuge behind the Meuse with Marshals Ney and Mortier. Cleary the time had come when he could no longer afford to linger in the capital. He would have to move fast and assume the mantle of command himself if he hoped to forestall the imminent concentration of the Allied forces...
"Have faith, do I not know my trade anymore?" With these words to his fearful Empress Marie Louise and his stepdaughter Hortense, Napoleon prepared to leave for the front to join his army, hoping to meet the multiple spearheads of the Allied advance on Paris and defeat them in detail as of old.
Napoleon Receives a Stinging Reverse
Napoleon vowed that he must seize the initiative first to throw the Allies of balance, as they plunged through the French countryside towards Paris. Deciding that the Army of Silesia was the nearest, he moved to intercept Blucher at St-Dizier, where a stiff action erupted with the enemys rearguard, for Blucher's main force had already moved through towards Brienne.
Frustrated that Blucher had eluded him, Napoleon gave chase and in his first major action of his 'Defence of the Patrie,' Napoleon pounced on Blucher's dispersed 25,000 men with 30,000 of his own on the 29th of January 1814 at Brienne. determined to crush the seventy one year old Prussian war horse before he could be joined by Schwarzenberg's Army of Bohemia. At the Battle of Brienne where he had been a schoolboy 30 years before, Napoleon forced Blucher to retreat after fierce house to house fighting; an action in which Marshal Ney distinguished himself.
With Blucher suffering some 4,000 casualties and himself some 3,000, it appeared that Napoleon had won a marginal victory, but it was not the devastating result that Napoleon had been hoping for. Blucher was still at large and at one point during the Battle the war had almost ended at a stroke, when Napoleon had almost been captured by the Cossacks, only being saved by the intervention of General Gourgaud. Nonetheless, on the other hand Napoleon had every reason to feel pleased with his raw conscripts, for though they lacked combat experience, they had fought with great spirit and had now been 'blooded'.
Three days later, Blucher did indeed manage to join up with Schwarzenberg and his Austrian army at La-Rothière, five miles from Napoleon's victory at Brienne, bringing their joint forces to 116,000 men, and they immediately counter attacked Napoleon's mere 40,000 men at the Battle of La-Rothière, forcing Napoleon to fight in the teeth of a snowstorm for he had been intending to withdraw in the face of such superior odds opposing him. The French line sagged as the allied columns slammed into them, but Napoleon's forces stubbornly held their ground and only nightfall brought relief to his beleaguered troops as he skillfully extricated his forces, aided by both the thick snowfall and the gathering gloom.
Both sides had lost around 6,000 men, but Napoleon could not afford such losses, while the Allies could absorb theirs. With the Union of Blucher and Schwarzenberg, Napoleon's forces were too weak to stop them, thus it was that Napoleon decided on a retreat, rather than face a resumption of battle the next day; first to Troyes and then onwards to Nogent, a distance of 60 miles. Napoleon's dissapointed troops to whom he had promised victory muttered bitterly, "When are we going to stop?"
With the allies now marching rapidly upon Paris, crowing over their victory over Napoleon at La-Rothière, Napoleon in a bitter mood received a further blow on the night of 7-8th of February when a despatch informed him that Marshal Murat whom he had made King of Naples, had deserted his cause by signing a treaty with the Allies. "I hope I live long enough to take my own and France's vengeance for such frightful ingratitude" he hissed in anger. It was a further blow to Napoleon too, for he had been hoping that his stepson, Prince Eugène, Viceroy of Italy would be able to cross from Italy and threaten the enemy's rear. Murats's treachery had put paid to that scheme. At around this time, Napoleon also received yet another peace offer from the allies based upon the frontiers of 1792, and again he scornfully dismissed the terms, saying "It is either the natural frontiers or nothing... I vow never to leave France weaker than I found her."
Yet, dismayed by his reverse and Murat's treachery Napoleon now saw the end of the war in sight and wrote to his brother Joseph in Paris, " It is entirely possible that I shall make peace shortly." But then heartening news arrived from Marshal Marmont on the front line, sending Napoleon into an ecstasy of joy, for the despatch revealed that Blucher and Schwarzenberg in a foolish move which Napoleon knew well how to exploit, and perhaps believing that Napoleon's retreat of sixty miles had been a sign that French resistance had ceased, had parted company and were now marching upon separate paths upon the French capital. "Peace can wait!" Napoleon jubilantly declared to his generals, "I will beat Blucher tommorrow, and then I will beat him again the day after..."
A Triple Defeat for Blucher
The campaign had been a lackluster start for Napoleon and the Allies were flushed from their success at La-Rothière causing their morale to soar while morale plummeted in Napoleon's ranks, leading thousands of his conscripts to desert his eagles. But February would see a wild upward swing in Napoleon's fortunes and he would dazzle his enemies by his brilliance and see his generalship climb to new heights.
Blucher, convinced that Napoleon's days were now numbered after after his repulse at La-Rothière, had now become drunk on overconfidence and was exhorting his Army of Silesia to march rapidly onward to Paris, recklessly disregarding any likelihood of a possible counterattack. As a result, his various army corps had become strung out and dispersed.
Schwarzenberg meanwhile, was advancing at a much more sedate pace for the cautious Austrian general was less than convinced that Napoleon was a spent force. He was displeased at Blucher's impetuous march on the French capital for he was worried about a vengeful Napoleon still roaming the countryside who might take advantage of the isolated armies. Another reason for his more leisurely advance was for political reasons; secretly he was less keen than the Prussians to see Napoleon's immediate downfall.
Napoleon watching these developments from Troyes, now saw the telling counterstroke to regain the initiative developing before his very eyes. Paris was the key. If the capital fell, then so would he. With Blucher strung out in the pursuit of it's capture, he had become isolated from Schwarzenberg and thus vunerable. With his corps strung out, he could defeat them in detail. He surmised that after Blucher was finished he could then turn on Schwarzenberg and with a bit of luck, drive him back across the Rhine
Napoleon's boast that he would "beat Blucher tommorrow, then the day after" had not been idle talk, for almost as good as his word, two days later on the 10th of February at a little past 10:00 am, Napoleon with 30,000 men fell upon the isolated Russian corps of General Olsufiev at Champaubert. With only 5,000 men and 24 guns, Olsufiev made a rash error when he decided to fight. Outnumbered 6 to 1 in Napoleon's favour, the outcome was predictable. The hapless, Olsufiev's corps was almost wiped out with only some 200 casulaties on the French side. Olsufiev himself suffered the humiliation of being captured by a nineteen year old conscript with only six months service. Only 1000 survivors managed to escape to tell of the disaster at the Battle of Champaubert.
Napoleon now occupied the perfect 'Central Position' and was ideally placed to wreak havoc upon Blucher's separated corps, still strung out on thier rapid march on the capital.
Blucher halted his columns of men, aghast at the news of the unfortunate Olsufiev's fate, and hastily issed orders to General Sacken and General Yorck chasing Marshal McDonald's corps of 7,000 men, but now isolated west of Napoleon at Champaubert, to make contact with one another and together move on Montmirail to attempt to blast their way through to re-establish communications with himself.
The next morning, Blucher, fearful that Napoleon was even now plunging west to destroy him, withdrew a few miles east to await developments from Sacken and Yorck, but Napoleon had no intention of racing after Blucher, judging that the Prussian general would merely retire east to Chalons, whilst Sacken and Yorck would escape over the Marne to safety. To this end, Napoleon had already detached Marmont to watch Blucher and moving with his accustomed speed had marched overnight to occupy Montmirail itself.
Even as Blucher was still worrying about the French Emperor falling upon him, Sacken, marching eastwards with 18,000 men to Montmirail came up against Napoleon's force in strength. Immediately, Sacken launched attack after attack through heavy rain showers in an effort to break through the French line to Montmirail and beyond. Napoleon, with just 10,500 men, held his ground to fight a defensive battle whilst detaching cavalry and infantry elements to watch the northern road for Yorck, who was expected to join up with Sacken. Indeed, by 2pm Yorck was approaching the battlefield, but cautiously. One hour later at 3pm, Marshal Mortier himself arrived with reinforcements, boosting Napoleon's force to almost 20,000 men. Wasting no time, Napoleon unleashed six battalions of the Old Guard led by Ney. Performing with their customary elan, the Guard smashed through Sacken's left flank, carrying all before them. By this time, Yorck had launched a limited counterattack of his own by committing 3,000 troops, but it was too little and far too late. Sacken, his line ruptured by the Guard, was on the point of collapse. Judging the moment ripe, Napoleon on horseback gave the signal and the French cavalry erupted all over the field. Sacken had had enough and the Russians began to withdraw. Yorck, seeing the battle lost, still fought on vainly to help cover Sacken's retreat, but as darkness fell and the atrocious weather closed in, the battle died down.
For the second time in as many days, Napoleon had won himself a victory at the Battle of Montmirail, losing 2,000 casualties as opposed to almost 4,000 of the joint forces of Sacken and Yorck. Montmirail was a great victory for Napoleon, for not only was he facing the combined forces of two allied armies which potentially totalled at least 30,000 as opposed to his 20,000, but both amies contained seasoned fighting men and were led by two generals who were able and tough commanders. That Napoleon triumphed so convincingly was due to the fact that he had outgeneralled his opponents and enforced his will across the entire battlefield from the start.
The very next day, Napoleon lauched a brilliantly conceived pursuit of the two allied armies streaming northwards. As the French cavalry closed on the Prussian rearguard near Chateau-Thierry they drove the allied cavalry fromn the field and broke the rearguard, capturing at least 3,000 prisoners as well as 30 guns and numerous wagons before the last remnants crossed the Marne and thus to safety.
On the 13th of February, as Napoleon rested his weary men after their recent exertions, Blucher, having spent two indecisive days of uncertainty as to the current state of affairs, began again to advance, his old impatience coming once again to the fore. Expelling Marmont at Etoges, the Prussian General made camp at Champaubert that evening, intending to to march on Montmirail the next day.
The next morning, Blucher's advance guard ran into a heavy wall of French Cavalry near Vauchamps. Ascertaining from a captured French prisoner that Napoleon himself was marching to destroy him and that both Sacken and Yorck had been defeated and were now across the Marne, Blucher knew he was in grave peril. Two stark choices remained for him: either fight or take flight. Certain of his own destruction if he lingered too long lest the French infantry catch him, Blucher immediately ordered a fighting withdrawal, but harried without mercy by the French cavalry, the Prussian columns hurridly retracing their steps were severely mauled, perhaps only escaping total destruction for the French proved unable to bring up their guns due to the muddy ground. Pursuing them as far as Etoges, Napoleon at last called off the pursuit, allowing Blucher's battered columns who had lost some 6,000 men during the Battle of Vauchamps, to retire eastwards to lick their wounds.
In an astonishing 'Five Days of Victory' Napoleon had thrown aside Blucher's audacious thrust upon Paris by striking at the weakest point of his overextended forces with brilliant precision to steal the initiative and wipe away the shame of La-Rothière, sending French morale soaring. Allowing his opponents no time to recover from this psychological blow, Napoleon had then moved with lightning speed to deliver a crushing blow against first Sacken and Yorck, and then finally to a bewildered and overconfident Blucher himself, who had been sent reeling back under a sledgehammer blow. Had Napoleon been able to remain in the vicinity, it is entirely possible that Blucher's Army of Silesia might have been utterly destroyed, but Blucher was to be allowed to recover and the arrival of General Winzingerode with an army corps of 30,000 men would replenish his depleted ranks. Nonetheless, Napoleon had shown in five brief days that his military genius still shone undiminished, reminiscent of the days of his First Italian Campaign.
Schwarzenberg is Repulsed
Benefitting from Napoleon's absence in the southern theatre, Schwarzenberg had managed by the 15th of February to penetrate up to 60 miles in places, forcing a wedge between Marshal Oudinot and Marshal Victor. The two marshals, who between them commanded just 40,000 men, had been obliged to fall back to form a new defensive line behind the River Yerres, centring the forces on Guignes, only 18 miles from Paris, in the face of Schwarzenberg's 90,000 strong Army of Bohemia.
What was most worrying for Napoleon's peace of mind, was the fact that the capture of Paris was now a distinct possibility, for Schwarzenberg had deployed some four corps along a 30 mile front, who were well placed to advance along roads that would converge on the capital to bring them together at it's gates as one fighting unit. And yet, Napoleon surmised that the very dispositions of The Army of Bohemia was also its weakness. If he could move swiftly enough, the various army corps could not possibly hope to link together in time to fight a decisive battle.
Schwarzenberg hesitated. He was stricken with indecision for he had heard the news of Blucher's defeat and he wondered if it might be prudent to fall back also in line with his ally eastwards, for he now felt overextended and vunerable should Napoleon now switch the focus of his attack upon himself. Another factor which had caused Schwarzenberg to halt, was that the French peasantry, driven to act by allied looting and inspired by news of Napoleon's successes, were reacting against their 'liberators'
"I may lose a battle, but I shall never lose a minute," Napoleon had once said, and now with time very much of the essence, Napoleon dashed southwards for a clash with Schwarzenberg, detaching Mortier to watch Sacken and Yorck, and Marmont to keep an eye on Blucher, as well as instructing McDonald to march south with all haste to Guignes. Ideally, Napoleon would have liked to attack his adversaries' rear, a favourite ploy of his, but shorn of Mortier and Marmont was forced to rejoin the main armies of Oudinot and Victor at Guignes together with his Guard, arriving at 3:00pm on the 16th. By this time, Napoleon had assembled some 60,000 men; Macdonald himself had completed an epic march of 47 miles in 36 hours by requisitioning country carts for his infantry.
By the time Schwarzenberg had made up his mind after hearing that Napoleon had arrived in person, it was already to late, for on the morning of the 17th, Napoleon's forces, concentrating upon the single point of Nangis to ensure a breakthrough, flung themselves at the allied columns who recoiled in great disarray, surprised and caught of guard by the suddeness of the attack. Victor swung towards Mormant to catch General Pahlen's force of 4,300 cavalry; Gerard and Grouchy, virtualy wiping them out. General Wrede and his Bavarian's withdrew south of the Seine at Bray, pursued by Macdonald, whilst Wittgenstien near Provins, marched to cross the Seine at Pont-Sur-Seine with Oudinot at his heels.
Napoleon now sent Victor to secure the bridge at Montereau, which spanned both the Seine and Yonne, hoping to trap Wurttemberg on the northern side of the Seine. It was not to be, for Victor bungled his orders, allowing Wurttemberg to withdraw unmolested to the Surville heights above Montereau where he hoped to provide a rearguard to enable his own men to retire in good order across the bridge and to give some cover to Bianchi who was heading from Fontainebleau to Troyes.
Justifiably raging at Victor's idleness, Napoleon arrived in person to fight the hard fought Battle of Montereau on the 18th. Under Napoleon's watchful guidance, the French successfully stormed the heights by mid afternoon, upon which Wurttemberg ordered a withdrawal which quickly became a rout as Napoleon loosed a brillant cavalry charge over the Montereau bridge, capturing it intact. Personally leading his guns forward to direct their fire upon the retreating columns of the enemy, Napoleon himself came under counter fire, prompting the gunners to remonstrate for exposing himself too far forward." Fear not, " Napoleon calmly replied, " The ball that is to kill me has not yet been cast."
Napoleon had won yet another victory at Montereau, his fourth in nine days and the bridge at Montereau was now in French hands. Things had not gone so well in the east. Both of the bridges at Bray and Nogent had been destroyed by the enemy, who were now safely away over the south bank of the Seine. Then the weather suddenly worsened, falling well below freezing which allowed the Army of Bohemia to escape across country. Dissapointed, Napoleon, not for the first time cursed the weather and commented bitterly, "The foe has enjoyed a stroke of rare good fortune... The heavy frosts have permitted him to move over the fields - otherwise at least half his guns and transport would have been taken."
Schwarzenenberg had been roughly handled however and had suffered some 6,000 casualties on the 18th, to 2,500 of the French and so continued his withdrawal to Troyes, hoping to link up with Blucher.
Yet again, spurring the latest peace offers from the allies as inadequate, Napoleon raced after Schwarzenberg with 75,000 men in a vain attempt to catch him and bring him to a decisive battle, but was thwarted for the allied general now had at least two days head start.
Linking up at Mery on the 21st with Blucher who had by now recovered from his reverses and had replenished his ranks with reinforcements, Schwarzenberg desired to continue the withdrawal to Bar-Sur-Aube, much to the disgust of Blucher who driven on by his hatred of the French Emperor, wanted to make a stand and fight the decisive battle that would decide the war. Schwarzenberg was also unsettled by reports coming in that Marshal Augereau was at last making a move on Geneva. Worried about Augereau severing his line of communications, Schwarzenberg had his way and the allied withdrawal recommenced, thwarting Napoleon again of a decisive action.
Napoleon rode into Troyes on the 24th, to a great welcome by it's inhabitants. Despite his dissapointment, he had every reason to feel pleased for he had met and successfully fended off the thrusts of two allied armies with a force both inferior in numbers and quality. Unfortunately, instead of capitalising on his gains to secure a lasting peace worthy of himself and the French people, Napoleon, with an unshakeable self-belief that would ultimately prove fatal, began to think that he might be able to win the war after all. To this end, to the despair of all those closest to him, he was prepared to gamble everything. For the Emperor Napoleon it had to be all or nothing, and from this point, Napoleon had lost his last chance to maintain himself as ruler of France.
The Second Phase
At Bar-Sur-Aube on the 25th of February, the Allied sovereigns and their generals, held a council of war to decide how best to carry the war to Napoleon. It was unaminously agreed that fighting so formidable an opponent as the French Emperor, they should fight a repetition of the Trachenberg Plan which had worked so well for themselves the year before. In this varient of the plan, the allies would seek to leapfrog their way to paris. If one army was threatened by Napoleon, it was ruled that they should withdraw. In turn, the other allied army free from interference, would them march rapidly upon the capital. When Napoleon in turn raced to parry this threat, they in turn would withdraw allow the former army to once again resume its forward march on Paris. When both armies were close enough to the French capital, they would unite to fight the decisive battle to end the war.
In the Netherlands, the renegade French marshal, Bernadotte showed no great zeal to attack his former master, fighting with his usual lack of committment which earned him the displeasure of Castlereagh who threatened to have him removed from the allies payroll. In fact, Bernadotte had been opposed to a full scale invasion of France from the beginning, for he hoped to gain favour with the French people in a misguided belief that he might be called to the throne when the French Empire finally fell. In this belief he was deeply dissillusioned for most Frenchmen thought he was a traitor. Alarmed at his lacklustre efforts, the allies ordered to Bernadotte's outrage, that the forces of Bulow and Winzingerode should be assimilated into Blucher's Army of Silesia.
It thus fell to Blucher to kick-start the game, and thus on the 24th of February, before even waiting for the council of war, the old warrior crossed the Seine at Anglure, preparing to thrust towards Paris. With a personal command of 53,000 men and the moral support of Winzingerode at Reims with 30,000 men and St-Priest at Vitry with another 16,000, he moved on Meaux, opposed only by Marmont and Mortier, who commanding only some 10,000 troops between them, skillfully drew back to Meaux itself. Even as Blucher lunged after them, he learnt that Napoleon, who had left Mcdonald at Troyes with 40,000 men to watch Schwarzenberg, was now marching northwards to confront him and so noting that he now held the central position, he conceived a bold strategic initiative worthy of the French Emperor himself. Summoning Winzingerode to join him, he planned to defeat the two marshals and then joined by Winzingerode, boosting his force to at least 80,000 men, to face Napoleon himself with the advantage of numbers in his favour.
Unfortunately for him, his sound plan miscarried when he was sharply repulsed on the River Ourcq by both Marmont and Mortier who had took refuge behind it and now commanded 16,000 men. With his original splendid concept in tatters, Blucher withdrew on the 2nd of March to mull over the situation and and then hearing that Napoleon was hot on his heels only twelve miles distant, in accordance with allied strategy he withdrew a further 10 miles east hoping to be met by the approaching Winzingerode and his 30, 000 men, but of that general there was still no sign.
In fact, at that moment both Winzingerode and Bulow with about 45,000 men betwen them were besieging the French garrison town of Soissons on the River Aisne about 13 miles north of his position. With Napoleon gaining on him, Blucher was faced with a simple choice, to stand and fight or cross the river. In face of the situation, the Aisne began to look decidedly attractive...
Napoleon is Checked at Laon
Napoleon, chasing after Blucher as fast as he could get his men to march, reached Fismes on the 4th of March where he was furious to learn that his quarry had escaped his clutches by making good his escape over the Aisnes at Soissons the evening before, which had since surrendered its garrison of 1,000 men. His fury became greater still as he learned that McDonald had failed by allowing Troyes to be taken by the enemy, and leaving Schwarzenberg in possession of all the bridges over the Upper Seine. "I cannot believe such ineptitude," he raved. "No man can be worse seconded than I am." Despite the unfavourable odds, Napoleon was still eager to come to grips with the Prussian general and intended to take Laon as soon as possible.
After crossing at Berry-au-Bac, on the River Aisnes, Napoleon directed his army of 38,000 men towards Laon where he encountered a strong enemy force holding the Plateau of Craonne on the morning of the 7th. Napoleon at once ordered up an impatient Ney to engage the forces immediately in order to force a way through, but Ney, leading up his divisions of the Young Guard in the face of concentrated fire, was accordingly repulsed with heavy losses. Time and time again, the French tried to storm the plateau, only to be hurled back by the resolute Russian defenders, who fought with a grim ferocity. Eventually, Mortier arrived with 72 guns of the Guard artillery, and Blucher feeling both desperately unwell and dissapointed in his failed counterattack by his cavalry divisions, gave the order to withdraw. In darkness, the Russian's sullenly withdrew, being hard pressed all the way by the French.
The Battle of Craonne ended as darkness fell. About 25,000 men had fought on either side. Napoleon had scored 5,000 casualties on the allied force, but he had lost some 500 more. In the desperate fighting, both Grouchy and Victor had been seriously wounded.
Knowing by now that Blucher had received significant reinforcements, Napoleon still believed that he had been fighting a strong rearguard action against him. In addition, he was under the illusion that Blucher was interested only in withdrawing to Belgium or to the River Oise, when in fact the stubborn Prussian general had every intention to stand his ground and fight at Laon. As for Napoleon himself, although he had only some 37,000 men at his disposal, he thought he might yet score a devastating blow against Blucher's rearguard which might permit him to return to the crumbling southern front.
On the 8th, Under the happy illusion that Blucher was on the run, Napoleon sent word to Marmont, just north of Berry-au-Bac to advance on Laon from the east by the Reims road. Whilst he himself moved on Laon, but when an incredulous Ney and Mortier saw the greater part of the Army of Silesia lying before them, Napoleon's illusions were crushed for Blucher had drew his army of 85,000 troops and 150 guns in a very strong position south of Laon
At 3am on the morning of the 9th under cover of a thick blizzard, the Battle of Laon began as Napoleon audaciously threw his infantry forward and stormed Etouvelles. At a disadvantage, since his 37, 000 were outnumbered by Blucher's 85,000, Napoleon contented himself with throwing forward a series of sharp frontal attacks during the day, hoping that Marmont would arrive on the eastern side of Laon to take the Army of Silesia in the flank.; for his part, Blucher showed great caution, for because of Napoleon's inferiority in numbers, he suspected a trap. Shortly after two o'clock, Marmont made his belated arrival, making his appearance at the head of 10,000 men. Forcing his weary and demoralised men into Athies, enemy resistance stiffened, and Seeing himself at such a disadvantage, Marmont welcomed the approaching darkness when the sporadic fighting died down, having no idea himself how Napoleon had fared in the west.
Blucher, carrying out an evening reconnaisance, saw for himself how exposed Marmont's position was, as well as Napoleon's weak position. At once he ordered an attack at 7pm on Marmont's young conscripts who weary of days of hard marching and fighting were completely taken by surpise with devastating results as the corps of Yorck and Kleist materialised out of the blackness, their bayonets flashing. Up to 2,000 men surrendered as Marmont's command disintergrated and was put to flight, pouring back down the Berry road pursued by their attackers.
Just after 4:00am the next morning, two fugitives revealed to Napoleon the disastrous news of Marmont's fate, with the loss of a third of his force, 45 guns and 120 wagons and all of it's baggage. Napoleon took the news with cool calm, and still determinined and unconscious of the grave peril to his own army announced that he would stand his ground to give Marmont time to rally. During the day, Winzingerode tried to recapture Clacy, but failed and the French launched limited skirmishing attacks against Laon, which made equally little progress. That evening, Napoleon, seeing the futilty of his situation managed to extricate his outnumbered men and march back to Soissons.
Napoleon wrote to his brother Joseph, to whom he had entrusted the security of Paris, the next day, slating Marmont's dire performance, "but for the crass stupidity of the Duke of Ragusa, who had who had behaved like a second lieutenant, it is probable that the enemy would have evacuated Laon for fear of an attack." He continued to say in the despatch, "As it is, the Young Guard is melting away like snow..."
In two days of fighting, the French had lost some 6, 000 casualties to the Allies 4, 000, and yet Napoleon had ben fortunate, for on the 10th he might have been decisively defeated were it not for the incredible paralysis that had overtaken the Army of Silesia, following the complete collapse of Blucher's health - With the elderly Prussian general convinced that he was dying and was about to enter a better world, he steadfastly declined to issue any orders or discuss the military situation at hand. As a result, the whole army was hamstrung and Gneisenau, his Chief-of-Staff, acting in his absence allowed himself to be overawed by Napoleon's military reputation and had subsequently allowed Napoleon to extricate his troops from a perilous position.
The situation for Napoleon, was now critical on all sectors. With his forces under Mcdonald driven north o f the Seine by a victorious Schwarzenberg, and now himself checked at Laon, it seemed that he now had barely 75,000 weary and demoralised men to defend Paris itself against a combined army of 200,000 soldiers. Everywhere the news spoke of total collapse.. In the South, Marshal Soult had been defeated by Wellington at the Battle of Orthez and was being pushed back to Toulouse. Belgium had already fallen, whilst in Italy, his stepson Eugene only held his own with some difficulty. As for Augereau, he had abandoned his drive on Geneva and had fallen back to Lyon. The only grains of comfort, small that they were, was that the ever redoubtable Marshal Davout was still holding out in Hamburg, and perhaps a dozen or so fortresses on the eastern border still flew the tricolour.
Momentarily, Napoleon toyed with the idea of going east to collect the troops tied up in the border fortresses, and despite the depressing situation, there was still plenty of fight left in him. While he meditated at Soissons, he then learnt that St-Priest, in an effort to draw near to Blucher at Laon and establish communications with him, had taken Reims. With St-Priest within easy striking distance, Napoleon now deduced he could win a snap victory.
On March the 13th, Napoleon thus advanced on Reims at speed, arriving there at nightfall and taking the Russians under St-Priest by surprise. Intending to take Reims come the morning, Napoleon was counter-surprised when the Russian's advanced upon his positions at 10:00pm that evening. Rousing himself, Napoleon ordered the Guard artillery forward into action. Since the artillery of the line blocked the road, Napoleon ordered "Push the whole lot in the ditch, I must be in Reims by midnight." With this dutifully done, the Guard artillery charged up the road to form a battery facing the city and after firing of a great salvo to smash the gates into dust, Napoleon gave the signal for his cuirassiers to charge. Aided by the light from lanterns which had been hung out by the inhabitants to aid their compatriots, the charge of the cuirassiers was terrible to behold as they swept all before them, sending the reeling Russians, scattering in all directions. Napoleon as good as his word, was indeed in Reims by midnight.
Inflicting 6,000 casualties on St-Priest, who himself had fallen in the brief battle, mortally wounded by a cannonball, Napoleon had barely lost 700 men and understandably he was jubilant at his success. "I am still the man I was at Austerlitz and Wagram," he boasted to a wavering Fouche, who unbeknown to him was secretly in touch with the Allies. French morale now soared and the shocked Allies were now threw into the greatest alarm, for now the outcome of the campaign once again appeared to hang in the balance as Blucher drew back and the cautious Schwarzenberg halted his advance.
Now astride Blucher's lines of communications at Chalon's and Vitry, Napoleon knew that temporarily he held the initiative and that he must now move quickly before the allies recovered from his bold stroke. Intuitively, he knew time was running out for him and that he must score a major success, something more substantial than the mere mauling of a single corps. Ordering Durutte to move east to break out the beleaguered fortress garrisons and join him with what he optimistically estimated as some 12,000 men, and leaving Marmont and Mortier to contain Blucher he swung himself southwards with 28,000 men to deal with Schwarzenberg whom he intended to score a quick success against, in order that he might quickly return to Blucher on the Aisne.
Indeed, when the Allied sovereigns heard of his approach, there was a rising panic, and Schwarzenberg acting true to form began to withdraw on the 17th upon Troyes, frustrating his ambitions. Encouraged by Caulaincourt's advice that the Allies might be willing to grant a peace again, Napoleon tried to open new negotiations, but to no avail, for he sensed the war weariness of his marshals and the exhaustion of his troops who were falling away like flies. Of himself, he too was tiring of the struggle, for the strain of conducting a campaign almost single handedly against almost impossible odds was beginning to tell on him both physically and mentally.
The Allies scornfully replied that they were "not to be prepared to negotiate with the Corsican Tyrant on any terms." It was to be a bitter fight to the finish.
Arcis - A Desperate Battle
Schwarzenberg had already slipped away from Troyes. Disappointed and with the clock ticking, Napoleon was ever more determined not to lose a minute as he gave chase to Schwarzenberg, intending to hasten the withdrawal if the Army of Bohemia by a sharp demonstration against Wrede, whom so he believed to be commanding the Allied rearguard, at Arcis-Sur-Aube. Directing his troops upon Arcis on the 20th of March, Napoleon and his Guard followed the line of the Aube north of the river, while his cavalry and Ney marched along on the southern side. Napoleon, by past experience, now believed he could bully his opponent into recoiling in terror by his mere presence, and he envisaged that once Schwarzenberg was knocked off balance, he could race for Saint-Dizier and to the Marne and hopefully draw closer to the valuable French garrisons of Metz and the Verdun. Therefore, when the Austrian general, acting outside of his customary manner, did an about-face, no one was more surprised than the Emperor himself.
It seemed as if almost the whole of the Allied cavalry riding straight at Arcis tore into the outnumbered French cavalry divisions south of the river, forcing them to ride panic-stricken to the bridge leading to the north side. At Torcy, Ney was assailed by Wrede's advancing columns. Witnessing that it was a moment of supreme crisis when his army might be routed and Ney isolated and compelled to surrender, Napoleon, always at his best in a crisis, rose to the occasion by riding out to the bridge to stem the tide of his fleeing cavalrymen. "Which one of you will cross before your Emperor?" he demanded of them sternly. Then the bearskins of the immortal warriors of the Old Guard hove into view, and, reassured both by their presence and that of the Emperor, the shaken troopers rallied to face their aggressors. Ordering his Old Guard forward, into squares to beat of the Allied horde, the fight became a desperate business, fought on a knife's edge. When it appeared that his wavering men might break under the onslaught, Napoleon, as if seeking death, deliberately rode over a smoking shell which exploded beneath his mount. From out of the dust strode Napoleon, miraculously without a scratch, as behind him his horse lay disembowelled and dying. By his personal example of courage, his men rallied, digging deep to pull off yet another victory. With the Allied cavalry fleeing the field in disarray, the French justly concluded they had won the honours that day, but it had been a very near run affair and still Napoleon was bewildered by the aggressive attack, still assuming it was a strong rearguard of Schwarzenberg's army. News also came in that Ney had beaten off Wrede's attacks.
At first light the next day, Napoleon ordered his cavalry forward to reconnoitre over the next ridge, but what they saw horrified them, for spread beyond the reverse slopes of the ridge lie the whole of the Army of Bohemia, some 80,000 strong which Schwarzenberg had concentrated during the night. There was no question now of making a stand. Outnumbered three to one, the only option was to withdraw if he still could, for to do otherwise would be to court disaster. Even now, as had happened with Gniesenau at Laon, something of the aura of Napoleon's reputation saved him and his army, for Schwarzenberg held off from attacking, allowing Napoleon to pull away. Only by mid-afternoon did Schwarzenberg order a general attack, by which it was too late. After a brilliant rearguard action by Oudinot, the last of Napoleon's units extricated themselves with skill, blowing up the bridge behind them over the Aube to escape.
Over the two days, the French had lost about 3,000 casualties, the Allies perhaps a thousand more. It was a tactical victory for Napoleon, in the sense that he had successfully withdrew his army in the face of superior odds, but, although Napoleon didn't know it at the time, he had fought his last major action of the campaign.
The Fall of Paris
The Allies made no attempt to follow the French and Napoleon was able to move northwards to join up with Macdonald and Kellerman near Ormes. Desperate to draw the Allies towards him, and away from his capital, Napoleon was determined to reach Saint-Dizier; from there to join up with his garrisons and still attack the enemy's lines of communication. But even before he reached Saint-Dizier, his intentions were known by the Allies when they captured a courier bearing a letter to his Empress, which ran in part, "I have decided to move on the Marne, in order to draw the enemy's armies farther from Paris, and myself nearer to my fortresses..." With the Emperor's plans laid bare, some in the Allies camp advocated withdrawing south, but those of bolder stuff prevailed, and it was announced on the 22nd to move the army of Bohemia northwards to link up with Blucher in order to commence an all out effort.
As the Army of Bohemia marched north, more despatches were intercepted, whicch revealed the considerable state of alarm from Paris. The illuminating reports also spoke of the great agitation of the disaffected politicians and ministers, who were intent on pulling out the props to topple the Empire, headed by the scheming Talleyrand. Embolded by this, the Tsar Alexander bullied Schwarzenberg for a new plan, which called for an immediate advance by the joint forces of both armies, totalling 180,000 strong, upon Paris. Winzingerode was to head towards Saint-Dizier with 10,000 cavalry and light infantry to fool the Emperor into believing that the Allies were indeed drawing away from the capital to protect their communications.
At Saint-Dizier, unaware that the Allies were on the point of calling his bluff, Napoleon, finalising his latest plans, hoping to draw the Allies after him, increasingly becoming more anxious every day he received no word of the Allies movements. Then, on the 27th, the day after his troops had succesfully routed Winzingerode, the enemy's intentions were made plain when news reached him that Marmont and Mortier had been forced back at La-Fere-Champenoise two days earlier and were retreating towards Meaux and Paris. For Napoleon it was the moment of shocking truth when he realised he had been duped by the Allies clever stratagem, but he was nonetheless impressed saying, "It's a beautiful chess move ! ... I should never have thought a general of the Coalition was capable of it."
Outmaneuvered, and with the veil of his own illusions at last torn from his eyes, Napoleon knew that he could never reach Paris in time before the Allies made their juncture before it. Even worse, it was clear that Paris was in a forment of panic at the Allies imminent arrival, and that the enemies of his regime headed by the treacherous Talleyrand were conspiring to hand over the keys to the city. Still defiant, Napoleon refused to accept the hopelessnes of his decision, speaking of transferring the seat of his government to Orleans and leaving Paris to its own, but his own Marshals rebelled, and, Napoleon, bowing to their advice, raced for the capital with his army by forced marches. In desperation Napoleon pressed on, leaving his army strung out along the roads to Paris, but at Juvisy in the early hours of the 31st, General Belliard of Mortier's corps at the head of a column of cavalry coming from the direction of the capital, gave him the terrible news that despite a spirited defence on the heights of Montmartre by Marmont and Mortier, Paris had surrendered just a few hours before. "They've all lost their heads," Napoleon flared up in anger, for he was certain that the capital could have been held, but for the defeatism and intrigues of those in Paris who had so readily abandoned his cause.
- Main article: Treaty of Fontainebleau
Inconsolable, Napoleon retired to Fontainebleau, still refusing to accept the inevitable truth that his cause was now beyond redemption. He surmised that all was still not lost, and he now summoned every available formation to now join him, and by the 3rd of April, he could count on 60,000 men. On that afternoon he held a review of his troops in the courtyard of Fontainebleau and drew them into his confidence, "Soldiers, by stealing three marches on us, the enemy has made himself master of Paris.. in a few days I will attack Paris. I count on you." The atmosphere became electric as the troops burst out with spontaneous cheers of "Vive l' Empereur! À Paris! À Paris!" But watching the enthusiasm of the rank and file, Napoleon's marshals and his generals stood apart, stony faced and silent.
The next day, heartened by the troops response, Napoleon called for his marshals to receive orders for the drive on Paris, but now they openly rebelled, Macdonald spoke first, exclaiming to him, "We do not intend to expose Paris to the fate of Moscow". An outraged Napoleon told them that he would march, but then the fiery Ney interjected, summoning up the courage to speak for them all, telling him bluntly, "The army will not march on Paris." Napoleon, raising his voice, replied "The army will obey me." "Sire," began Ney, "The army will obey its generals."
It was not true, of course, that the army would obey its generals, and Napoleon knew it. He only had to show himself within the courtyard and the ordinary rank and file would acclaim him and follow him wherever he led, but with the defection of his marshals; of this ultimate betrayal, Napoleon felt lost, and after the thunderous silence which followed Ney's outburst, Napoleon asked his marshals to leave so that he could confer with Caulaincourt over the best course of action to take. At length, Napoleon finally accepted he must bow to the inevitable and abdicate, but he tried to assure the succession of his son the 'King of Rome' through a document of conditional abdication.
Caulaincourt, Ney, and Macdonald set out to Paris with Napoleon's conditional abdication and early indications were favourable that the Allies might accept , but then shocking news came in that changed the whole picture; Marmont's corps, some 12, 000 strong had defected to the Allies, crossing Austrian lines in their camp. With confirmation of Augereaus abandonment of Lyons and Soult's desperate position in the South of France, the Allies with the sure certainty that they now held all the cards, insisted upon a unconditional surrender. They were not about to let Napoleon rule through the backdoor by a regency.
At Fontainebleau, Napoleon was still issuing detailed instruction for a move to towards Orlean's when his envoys returned with the bad tidings. Thunderstruck, Napoleon was forced to accept that through the defection of Marmont's 12,000 men; the most substantial of his corps, his military hopes of any further resistance lie in tatters. On April 6th, Napoleon drafted a new ammended unconditional abdication.
After signing the Treaty of Fontainebleau, and relinquishing his rights on France, Napoleon, on the night of April the 12th, with the bottom having fallen out of his world and in despair lest the Allies prevented the Empress and his son from rejoining him, attempted to escape from his torment by taking his own life. Since his near capture by cosacks at Malojaroslavets in 1812, Napoleon had carried a phial of poison on his person, which he now took. Despite becoming very ill, so much so that Caulaincourt thought that he might not survive the night, the potion had lost its effectiveness over the course of two years and Napoleon survived his suicide attempt.
Farewell to the Guard
- Main article: Farewell to the Old Guard
For the next few days, Napoleon spent a painful time wandering exasperatedly around Fontainebleau, resigned to what the Allies might do. By the 16th, the Allies had ratified the final form of the treaty, agreeing to allow Napoleon to retain the title of Emperor and giving him full sovereignty over the small island of Elba. It was also stipulated that he would receive two million francs a year, and was to be allowed to take a personal Guard of 600 men into exile with him.
By the of 20th of April, the time had come to say his last farewells and to depart for the island of Elba. In one of the most poignant scenes in history, the Old Guard paraded in the courtyard of Fontainebleau. Facing the immaculate ranks of his Old Guard, Napoleon's words were laced with emotion as he told them: "Soldiers of my Old Guard, I bid you goodbye. For twenty years I have found you uninterrupotedly on the path of honour and glory. Lately no less than when things went well you have continously been models of courage and loyalty. With men like you our cause was not lost; but the war could not be ended: it would have been civil war, and that would only have brought France more misfortune. So I have sacrificed our interests for those of the Patrie. I am leaving you, my friends, are going to go on serving France. France's happiness was my one thought; and it will always be what I wish for most. Don't be sorry for me; if I have chosen to go on living, I have done so in order to go on serving your glory. I want to write about the great things we have done together! ....Goodbye, my children! I should like to press you all to my heart, but at least I shall kiss your flag!"
Napoleon then callled for his eagle to be brought to him, and as the standard was placed in his arms, he took hold of the flag and pressed it to his heart, before giving it a kiss of farewell. At this, the grizzled warriors of the Guard who many a time had watched unflinching as their blood ran down, could not restrain their sobs. Caught within the mood of the moment, it was noted that tears came to the eyes of the British, Austrian and Prussian commissioners too, except for the Russian. Napoleon lifted his hand, in a simple gesture, "Adieu!" he called,"keep me in your memory!" He turned, entered into his carriage and took to the road to Elba.
Two days after Napoleon set sail on the British brig of war HMS Undaunted, bound for his new realm of Elba, the newly restored King Louis XVIII signed the Treaty of Paris with the Allies. France was stripped of all territorial gains, and reduced to its borders of November 1792. In addition, she lost the overseas possessions of Tobago, Santa Lucia and Mauritius. But the treaty was also astonishingly mild, for no indemnity was imposed on France and she was permitted to retain all the works of art that had been looted from all over the continent. As for the difficult question as to how the map of Europe should be redrawn, that was postponed by common consent, to be decided at the Congress of Vienna to be held in the autumn.
The Allies hoped, that by granting this lenient peace, France might be welcomed back to become a cooperating member of the European nations.
It has been said that the campaign of 1814 was Napoleon's greatest hour, but this must be balanced by the fact that his defence of France nonetheless ended in failure. It is true that in the series of maneuvers, actions, and battles which he fought between January and late March he demonstrated that his genius for war had lost none of its potency as his generalship reached new highs. Indeed it was only by the power of his will alone that the unequal struggle was prolonged for so long, for the belief in his cause was bolstered by his own self-delusion as he dreamt of regaining his reputation and position. When he was present, the army achieved wonders, but he could not be everywhere, and he was one man against the might of a combined Europe.
Napoleon also failed to appreciate that his marshals were played out. Tired of the long endless wars, they lacked the will to victory. Napoleon was able to exert his old charisma over the ordinary rank and file as of old, but his subordinates succumbed to despair, fatalism, and even self-interest as the Napoleonic Wars entered its twilight. Even France itself was exhausted, for two huge armies had been destroyed in the last two years, and with the attritional effects of two decades of continual warfare, aggravated by the Continental System and by the British blockade, the economy of France was ruined as well as her source of manpower.
Napoleon was offered peace on reasonable terms on several occasions, and out of tune with the changed times he rejected them, still stubbornly believing right till the very end that his cause might triumph. For Napoleon it seemed to be a case of all or nothing. He could not accept second best, nor accept that his period of dominance over Europe was at an end. In retrospect, perhaps he should have listened to the greater voice of the French people and made a peace worthy of himself and of them, and then in theory he might still have been able to retain the throne for himself and perhaps assure that his Napoleonic dynasty would survive him by passing to his son, the King of Rome.