On 25 January at Châlons-sur-Marne the bleak winter night had closed on the empty streets. Then towards midnight came the clop-clopping of many hooves. A mud-splashed convoy of five coaches escorted by a handful of Chasseurs of the Guard, reeling in their saddles from fatigue, clattered over the cobbles and drew up at the Prefecture. As the occupants of the coaches prepared to alight the thunder of hooves increased. Rank upon rank the cavalry of the 1st Division of the Imperial Guard rode by to seek billets. Out of the second coach stepped a short, square, somewhat corpulent man of 44. The long plain grey overcoat flapped about the ankles of his black riding boots and as usual he wore an unornamented block cocked hat transversely on his head: his large deep-set eyes veiled a fire that few dared brave. As he walked into the house he carried with him an air of effortless, unchallengeable authority. Napoleon, on a purely statistical basis of battles fought and won the greatest soldier of any age, was about to take the field for the last but one of his many campaigns; almost inevitable it was to end in a failure, nevertheless it was to be one of his greatest.
He had left Paris early on the 25th, broken his fast at Château-Thierry and driven on to Châlons. Now he listened attentively with no sign of weariness while his senior officers told him their latest news. Their information was contradictory and confused; he learned to his annoyance that Marshal Victor had evacuated St-Dizier and pulled back 20 miles to Vitry-le-François. He dictated a testy letter to his Chief-of-Staff, Marshal Berthier, “I ordered him to hold it and it is not with a rearguard, every an ready to retire, that a position is held.” However it was no great matter. He proposed to concentrate most of his army south of Vitry and he thoughtfully instructed Berthier, , ‘Requistion two to three hundred thousand bottles of wine and eau-de-vie so that we can make an issue today and tomorrow. Never mind if it is all champagne; its better we should drink it rather than the enemy.’ Then he dictated the orders for the battle he intended to fight on the morrow.
“ Châlons-sur-Marne, 26 January, 9:445 in the morning.
The Emperor orders that the Duke of Belluno [Victor] takes up a question as close as possible to St. Dizier across the St. Dizier-Vitry Road with his right flank resting on the Marne.
The Duke of Ragusa [Marmont] will deploy astride the main road half a league [2,000-4,000 meters] behind the Duke of Belluno and remain ready to move instantly.
The Prince of Moskva [Ney] with the 1st and 2nd Divisions of the Young Guard will take up a position across the road half a league or a league behind Marmont…
General Lefebvre with his cavalry [about 2,500 Sabres] will take up a position behind the Prince of Moskva saddled and ready astride the road.
Imperial Headquarters will open this evening at a village behind the Duke of Belluno.
The Army will be informed that the Emperor intends to attack tomorrow morning.
All baggage not required for the battle will be dumped between Vitry and Châlons.
The artillery is to be deployed ready for action.
Bread and any brandy will be procured and distributed either at Vitry or where obtained.
Localities will be prepared for dealing with casualties.
A reconnaissance will be made of the River Ornain and care will be taken to ensure the good condition of the road bridge and that at Vitry-le-Brȗlé; a third will be constructed on a possible line of retreat’
As couriers departed with the orders Napoleon called for his coach. Before 4 P.M. he was in Vitry-le-François. The Battle for France was about to begin. After his disastrous withdrawal from Germany he had hoped the Allies would delay until the spring, but he had been granted no respite. However he was confident that the unlikely alliance would fall apart from the mutual jealousies and suspicions of its leaders. Tsar Alexander thought only of revenging his burnt Moscow and dreamed of dictating terms in a prostrate Paris. Blücher nursed a similar ambition; but his sovereign, Frederick William III of Prussia, remembering the humiliating defeats of Jena and Auerstädt, disliked the prospect of invading France and giving the old magician a chance to preform yet another miracle and win back all he had lost. The guileful Metternich and his Emperor, Francis I of Austria, thought the French Revolution the real enemy. Napoleon had tamed it and was more likely to control the turbulent French than the Bourbons; it remained to persuade him to leave his neighbours in peace. Once France was crippled, Russia would gobble up Saxony. Francis himself wondered if it was not lacking in family spirit to wage too harsh a war against the husband of his daughter, Marie-Louise, who had already presented Napoleon with a son. Castlereagh for Britain wished to preserve the balance of power in Europe, and like Metternich had no desire to encourage republicanism in France or to see an over-mighty Russia.
At Frankfurt in December, largely at the instance of Austria, the Allies had offered Napoleon the ‘natural boundaries of France, the Rhine, the Alps and the Pyrenees.’ Napoleon rejected the offer and on 4 January wrote to General Caulaincourt, the plenipotentiary he had appointed to negotiate on his behalf, ‘I think it is doubtful if the Allies are negotiating in good faith and that England seeks peace. I myself desire it but only on honourable and lasting terms. France without its natural boundaries, without Ostend, without Anvers (Antwerp) could no longer take its place among the other powers of Europe…Do they wish to confine France to its ancient borders? They are mistaken if they think the miseries of war can make the nation desire such a peace…Italy is intact and the Viceroy (Eugène Beauharnais) has a fine army. In a little more than a week I shall open a campaign even before my reinforcements from Spain have time to arrive. The depredations of the Cossacks will drive the people to arms and double our numbers. If the nation supports me the enemy marches to his doom. If fortune betrays me my resolution is taken; I will degrade neither the nation nor myself by accepting dishonourable terms. You must find out what Metternich intends. I is not in the interest of Austria to carry things through to a finish.’
As on the afternoon of 26 January his coach rumbled towards Vitry, Napoleon was far from despair. He could still trust to his star. A miracle such as the sudden death of the Tsar, as had saved Frederick the Great, might enable him yet to live like the monarch to an honoured old age. Despite the odds he still felt an inner certainty that he would triumph, that his destiny would bring him through to victory in the end if he would but trust to it.
Besides, unlike Frederick he was not a legitimate monarch. During the peace that had followed the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, France had teemed with intrigues and conspiracies; royalists and republicans alike had schemed to unseat him. Would the nation tolerate a peace that threw away so much that had been gained at so heavy a cost in blood?
There may have been a further, unacknowledged, motive for continuing the struggle. Napoleon himself set little store on courtly pageantry and ceremonial. Perhaps he felt most happy in the ordered simplicity of a military camp—listening to the sounds of the drums and trumpets, the clashing of arms and the shouted words of command—while for the highest stakes in the world he played the strategic gam at which he was the acknowledged supreme master.
For him in January 1814, it was unfortunately true that half a million well-trained troops from all the major stats in Europe stood poised on the frontiers of France and indeed had already pierced them, that many of his best soldiers were locked up in fortresses in Germany, in the Netherlands and on the borders of France. But one great victory and the whole ramshackle alliance of Britain and Austria, of Russia, Prussia and Sweden, of Saxony and Bavaria, of Spain and Portugal would fall apart. And even now the Prussian Blücher was pressing on impetuously with his Army of Silesia, well ahead of Prince Schwarzenberg and his Army of Bohemia. A quick stroke tomorrow and Paris once again would ring with the news of a new Imperial triumph, its citizens regaled by the sight of long columns of enemy prisoners.
THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE®
SOURCE:NAPLEON; The Last Campaigns 1813-15; BY James Lawford
CONTRIBUTOR: Martin F. Elkins