Napoleonic Wars: Road to Brienne; January 27-28

Early on the 27th January 1814, Victor attacked St-Dizier. A few shots were fired, and then General Lanskoi with a handful of Prussians disappeared. At 10:00 O’clock in the morning Napoleon rode to St-Dizier to the plaudits of the inhabitants. But he had used a sledgehammer to crush an egg and now all knew that he himself was once more in the field. However, he heard that Blücher had arrived at Brienne. There might yet be time. He moved swiftly after his quarry.

At Brienne Colonel Müffling, serving on Blücher’s staff as Quartermaster-General, was comfortably lodged in the chậteau that overlooked the town. Of his duties he wrote, ‘I had to prepare everything relating to the great operations, quarters, encampments, marches, partial and general actions…all reports arriving by day or night of the enemies’ movements and all dispositions of deserters and prisoners or spies were immediately communicated to me. The propositions for movements and dispositions for combats and battles emanated from me. I laid them before General Gneisenau…and when he approved my plans we went to the Field Marshal [Blücher] to whom again I had to state the measures proposed, map in hand…The Field Marshal never made any difficulties when the proposals were for an advance or an attack. But at any suggestion of a withdrawal he was apt to become angry.’ Müffling possessed and unerring strategical and tactical sense, at least according to his memoirs published some 30 years later, but sometimes he had difficulty in convincing his slower-witted superiors. He had crossed the Rhine on 1 January 1814 with Blücher’s Army of Silesia, which with the Army of Bohemia formed the Grand Army of the Allies under the supreme command of the Austria General Prince Karl Philipp of Schwarzenberg. At Frankfurt, after Napoleon had rejected their terms, the Allied Sovereigns drew up their plan of campaign. Initially Schwarzenberg with his army, some 200,000 strong, was to hook through Switzerland skirting the headwaters of the Rhine, thrust west through the Belfort Gap between Vosges and Jura Mountains and debouch onto the Plateau of Langres. Once his army was concentrated there the sovereigns would discuss the next step. Blücher with his Army of Silesia on the Middle Rhine was to wait until the Army of Bohemia had entered France, then force a crossing subsequently guard its right flank.

While Schwarzenberg departed on his complicated and circuitous journey, Blücher remained watching the ice flows on the Rhine and chafing at the delay. The Rulers of the Allied powers competed to load him with decorations. The old Field Marshal, now 71 years of age, combined the vitality of a man half his years with the tongue of a bargee. Of his decorations he exclaimed ungratefully, ‘ I look like and old coach horse with all this stuff and up to date it has brought me nothing.’

On New Years Day 1814, against negligible opposition he swept over the icy Rhine, crossing simultaneously at Mannheim, Koblenz and Kaub, scattering some weak French detachments before him. By 12 January he had completed the investment of Mainz and was blockading French garrisons at Metz, Saarlouis, Landau, Thionville and Luxemburg. On that day he wrote to Schwarzenberg, ‘I can give battle with 74,000 men or on the 19th in front of Metz with 90,000.’ Marmont watching the Rhine with 10,000 men fell back. On the 14th Blücher wrote, ’So we are off to Paris. Unless we do something foolish we shall carry all before us.’ And again, ‘My 50,000 Russians will follow me to the end of the earth and my own men are unsurpassed in bravery.’ The Allied army, with army corps composed of varying nationalities, was and integrated European Army such as the world has seldom seen. As often happens in such circumstances, the various allies seemed to dislike each other rather more than they did the French.

Schwarzenberg, after establishing his base at Basle, made his way carefully to the Plateau of Langres, but the impatient Blücher rush on to Nancy leaving much of his army behind him blockading the frontier fortresses. The Austrian general writing to his wife complained, ‘Without placing and considerable force to guard the road from Chậlons to Nancy they [Blücher and Gneisenau] rush on like mad bulls to Brienne. Regardless of their rear and flanks they do nothing but plan fine parties they are going to enjoy in the Palais Royal.’ Schwarzenberg had reason to voice his displeasure. He had started a stately and ponderous advance up the valleys of the Aube and the Marne, but the irrepressible Prussian, instead of protecting his right flank, had cut in ahead of him and now spearheaded an advance to which the Austrian had only agreed with extreme reluctance. Now, owing to his impetuosity, Blücher was in danger of becoming isolated.

However, as Blücher, Gneisenau and Müffling enjoyed the delights of the château at Brienne, the disapproval of their commander troubled them not at all. Their troops were almost entirely Russian and consisted of Sacken’s Corps and Olsufiev’s detachment, also 5,000 men and 24 guns from Langeron’s large corps that was still blockading fortresses near the Rhine. Blücher placed Sacken at Lesmont, some six miles to the north-west, to guard the bridge over the Aude, and quartered Olsufiev in Brienne itself. He left a small detachment at St-Dizier to safeguard the route to Nancy and the east and put another in Arcis-sur-Aude, 18 Miles to the west, to secure its important bridge on the main road to Paris.


SOURCE: NAPOLEON: The Last Campaigns 1813-15; BY James Lawford
CONTRIBUTOR: Martin F. Elkins


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