Napoleonic Wars: After Brienne January 1814

At Brienne Napoleon paused. He had failed in his attempt to score a dramatic success while his foe was still dispersed. But the strategic situation had begun to crystallize. In the centre, in eastern France, Napoleon with about 80,000 men confronted the Allied Grand Army, the latter was about 200,000 strong and its commanders were intent on marching on Paris. In the South of France Wellington, the ‘sepoy general’ as Napoleon contemptuously dubbed him, must eventually overwhelm Soult, unless by diplomacy Spain could be weaned from the alliance, but wellington distrusted his Continental allies and was unlikely to make any damaging stroke: he could be discounted for the present. In the north the situation was radically different. Here Bernadotte, the renegade Marshal of the empire and present Crown Prince of Sweden, commanded. Although he personally was less than lukewarm about fighting his old chief, large numbers of his troops could undoubtedly soon be free invade France. At Lyon Augereau was organizing an army but only extremely slowly: the powerfully built former Parisian street urchin showed few signs of recapturing the brilliant qualities that he had displayed long ago at Castiglione.

The elements of the situation stood out with stark simplicity. With 80,000 men Napoleon had to defeat an allied army of 200,000 and drive it across the Rhine in some two or three weeks, before fresh armies from the north made his position still more untenable. Perhaps even Napoleon himself did not comprehend the full magnitude of his task. The great commanders of the past on occasion had to face similar odds, but almost invariably their armies in every aspect of training and equipment were vastly superior to those of their enemies. Except for the incomparable Old Guard and some battalions of the New (Guard), the well seasoned troops of the Allied were superior to Napoleon’s conscripts both in equipment and experience. That in such circumstances he contemplated continuing the war may seem incredible.

However, besides his genius and his ability to inspire his men to accomplish the almost impossible, Napoleon had certain physical factors in his favor, which he had every intention of exploiting. The large armies he had compelled Europe to raise were now organized in army corps of all arms. The strength of any army corps could fluctuate widely and its composition was far from standard. A French corps might total about 15,000 men and on the line of march extend for approximately seven mile along a road. In battle it normally occupy a front of about a mile and a half or even less. At rest, if there was a danger of attack, it had to be concentrated ready for action. Moving a corps might be likened uncoiling and pulling an immensely long rope through a system of pulleys to coil it neatly again at the far end. A rope, of course, would have a constant thickness, whereas the thickness of corps during a move would vary according to the width of the width and structure of the roads and the number available. If a corps moved on a single road the last unit might get into camp perhaps two and a half hours after the first arrived; this delay would be increased if any defile like a bridge narrowed the width of the column and consequently elongated it.

Near the presence of the enemy it was vital that the last unit should arrive at the camping site well before daylight ended. Regiments had to know where to bivouac for the night, identify their next door neighbours, detail outposts and alarm posts. Food might have to be issued and ammunition replenished. Men would have to be given time to collect firewood and cook their soup. Failure to meet these requirements over any length of time would mean that the regiments faded away from sickness. The short winter days severely restricted the distances the Allied armies could cover. Moreover their generals, looking nervously over their shoulders and wondering what Napoleon had in store for them, trod with great caution. Napoleon, on the other hand, by almost always seizing the initiative, could generally chose where and when the battle would be fought and was not so bound by the hours of daylight.

The difficulties experienced by a single corps moving down a road were more than doubled if two tried to use it. A long column inevitably tended to ‘concertina’; while the head moved at a steady sedate pace the tail would be either standing still or running at top speed. In a very long column this characteristic could add enormously to the fatigue of the men marching in the rear. For this reason it was customary to leave an interval of half a day’s march, about eight miles, between the head of the second corps and the tail of the first. Winter, therefore vastly increased the difficulties of the invaders. The wet soggy ground made movement off the roads slow and fatiguing for the infantry and cavalry and virtually impossible for the guns and transports.

In the province of Champagne the rivers averaged about 50 yards in width and were deep; in the icy conditions the rare fords were scarcely usable, any marching column of troops would have to cross a river by bridge which would act as a funnel, compressing and extending it. In addition the Allied sovereigns repeatedly impressed on their generals that they were not fighting the French but only Napoleon, that a national uprising might imperil the whole enterprise and that on no account should the soldiers be allowed to plunder and antagonize the local population. A carefully organized system of supply was essential; but the problems of bringing forward supplies long distances in vehicles that moved little faster than the marching troops were considerable, and the need to protect then en route could drain away the strength of field armies.

Napoleon was singularly well qualified to turn these difficulties to his own advantage. He moved and struck so fast that a corps moving apparently within easy reach of its neighbour might be crushed before help could arrive. His phenomenal speed arose not solely from the marching powers of his soldiers, great though these were, it arose in the first place from the rapidity with which he thought and acted. Not for him the lengthy analysis of the situation by some earnest staff officer; he needed no one to tell him what to do. He would take time to deliberate over the form that his campaign might take and what he might be required to do, but, once he had that established in his mind, on the battlefield itself a quick glance or so, a few brief orders given with absolute authority, and matters would be in train. His marshals, inured to the vicissitudes of war, might lack inspiration, but they were superb technicians, master craftsmen of their trade. They translated their Emperor’s orders swiftly and undeviatingly into action and the whole army moved into battle with a speed and a smoothness that the Allied armies, seasoned and experienced though they were, cold not hope to match; and the sight of the bearskins of the Guard revealing the presents of Napoleon himself generated a feeling of awe almost as of the supernatural.

Slowly they marched to the hamlet of La Rothiére.

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

Napoleonic Wars: Battle of La Rothière 1 February 1814



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