Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Brienne, 29 January 1814

On 29 January 1814, the Cossacks, who swarmed everywhere practicing their peculiar and predatory form of warfare, reported strong French columns marching on Brienne from the direction of St-Dizier. No one doubted that napoleon led them himself. Müffling recounted, ‘General Sacken received orders to join the Field-Marshal at Brienne. Immediately after, an officer was brought in prisoner who had been dispatched from Vitry the day before with written instructions to Marshal Mortier to join Napoleon from Troyes by way of Arcis. Thus informed we stepped into the castle court and erected telescopes to observe Napoleon’s approach, as from this height we could overlook the whole plain beyond the town of Brienne to Maizières (about four miles to the north-east). Count Pahlen ( who commanded the advance guard of Schwarzenberg’s army) arrived from Joinville and went to station himself with his cavalry and some Jäger Battalions in the plain towards Maizières, so that he covered and concealed the march of Sackens corps from Lesmont.’

Müffling and Gneisenau estimated that without Mortier Napoleon could only muster 30,000 men and that when Sacken arrived Blücher would have as many. At about 3 o’clock as the chill evening drew on, the French guns opened fire from the direction of Maizières. Olsufiev replied with his own 24. For a while Blücher watched developments from the terrace of the château, but dinner had been announced and he found this engagement the more pressing.

In the course of a cheerful meal cannon-balls began to slam into the château walls. Blücher, who had invited the French officer to dine at his table, politely suggested that he should withdraw with his escort. The French officer, not to be outdone in courtesy, replied that he had no desire to leave such excellent company. A citizen of Brienne who did not appear to share his sentiments, was visibly disconcerted when some of the paneling fell in and plaster dropped down from the ceiling. The Field-Marshal blandly inquired, ‘Do you own this castle?’ ‘N0.” “Then you can rest easy. The castle is solidly built, the cost of repairs will not be great, and in any case you won’t have to pay them.’

Having eaten his fill, Blücher stepped out on the terrace once more. The light was fast fading. Count Pahlen had fallen back on Brienne and Sackens men were filing through the town. On the French left he could see some columns of the Young Guard standing in amass without taking any precaution to cover their open left flank. By now many houses in Brienne were well a light and the French beginning to close in, but Blücher decided that such ineptness should not go un-penalized. Müffling galloped off to organize an attack of some of Pahlen’s cavalry. He recalled, ‘ We rode into the Young Guard and our right wing got as far as the reserve which stood a good way back on the road bordered by tress from Brienne to Maizières. We captured two batteries and the enemy fell back in the greatest disorder; but as often happens in a cavalry fight, when all are scattered all command ceased…darkness put an end to the combat.’

On returning to Brienne Müffling found the Château in the hands of the French. In the darkness a French battalion with great dash had clambered up the ridge and carried it with the bayonet. Blücher had left hurriedly and only just in time. When he learned of the check to the French left he swore ‘that fellow’ should not sleep in his bed that night and directed Sacken to retake the château. Climbing up the hill in the near-freexing darkness and silhouetted against the burning houses in the town below. Sacken’s men could make no impression on the defenders. The Château dominated the countryside. At about 10 o’clock that night Blücher broke off the engaement and withdrew to a strong position on the heights above Trannes, about eight miles to the south. The shrewd French thrust on the château had forced him out of Brienne, but his army had suffered no crippling damage and the next day the advanced columns of the Allied Grand Army would reach him.

Napoleon had covered the 30-odd miles from St-Dizier to Brienne with remarkable speed. By the morning of the 29 January his first troops arrived at Maizières. Their strength built up in the afternoon and by 3 o’clock with 10,000 men he had started to attack. He later reported to General Clarke, his Minster of War in Paris, ‘ Blücher has been beaten, he has lost five or six hundred prisoners and between three and four thousand men killed or wounded. Generals Forestier and Baste of the Young Guard have been killed and General Lefebvre-Desnouettes suffered a bayonet wound while charging in his usual intrepid fashion. Our loss is reckoned to be 2,000 men (he subsequently raised the estimate to 3,000). If I had veteran troops I might have done more, but with the troops I have, I am happy with what occurred. We have taken up a position two leagues (5miles) beyond Brienne with our right on Aube and our left on the wood. The Duke of Treviso [Mortier] is at Troyes and the Duke of Taranto [MacDonald] on the Marne. I approve of your recalling the General who from the first to last has shown that he is nothing but an imbecile.‘ (Possibly the latter was the general who failed to discover Blücher’s dispositions at St-Dizier)

Napoleon had good reason to be pleased with his conscripts of 1813-14, the ‘Marie-Louises’ as they were known. They had little training, but they made up for that lack in greatness of heart. In one often-quoted incident Marmont came on a “Marie-Louise‘ standing steadily in his rank under hot fire, but with butt of his musket grounded and making no effort to shoot back. “Why don’t you fire back?‘ asked the Marshal. ‘I Would do so gladly,‘ replied the conscript, ‘if someone would show me how to load my musket.’ Marmont quietly loaded it for him.

SOURCE: NAPOLEON: The Last Campaigns 1813-15; By: James Lawford

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