Napoleonic Wars: Battle of La Rothière 1 February 1814

Now the great conjurer, the great gambler, face with his accustomed courage and confidence the greatest game of chance of his life. The day after the action at Brienne, while his army took up a position near La Rothère with its right on the Aube and its left on the wooded slopes by La Giberie, he laid ot his maps, studied the dispositions of both sides and prepared his plans. Next day his clerks laboured from dawn to dust; letters poured out from the château while Blücher’s patrols skirmished in the plain before La Rothère, and the battalions of the Grande Armée came marching up. The blow against Blücher had miscarried; it was time to be gone. However, the bridge at Lesmont had been badly damaged and it would be another 24 hours before it could be used; so, unmindful of the deadly peril developing near Trannes, Napoleon on the 31st laid out the foundations of the coming campaign.

Paris was the key. If it fell, he fell. He had to withdraw so that the advancing enemy armies again became dispersed; then he must aim to keep some columns in play with a light screen of troops while with the main strength of the army he crushed the remainder. River-lines and bridges would offer him the best opportunities. Here the geography of Champagne was well suited to his plans.

The River Aude flowed into the Seine to form with that river a great moat barring the approaches to Paris from the south and south-east, while the River Yonne, flowing from the south into the Seine near Montereau, bounded the area to the west. Three great roads led to Paris. One passed through Brienne, crossed to the south bank of Aude at Lesmont, one followed that bank to Arcis, then turned west to cross the Seine at Méry and again at Nogent; from there it ran to Paris by way of Provins, Nangis and Guignes. Gygines, about 18 miles from Paris, lay just south of the River Yerres, the last barrier before the capital.

The second principal road ran in the north from Verdun to Châlons-sur-Marne; from that town it followed the south bank of the Marne through Épernay to Château-Thierry; here it changed to the north bank to go to La Ferté-sous-Jouarre where it crossed to the south to cross again at Trilport, going from there to Meaux and Paris.

The third, the southern route, started from Troyes, the ancient capital of Champagne, ran westwards to the River Yonne, crossing it at Pont-sur-Yonne, then went over the Seine at Montereau to continue up the east bank through Melun to Paris. In addition to these, a good road ran north from Troyes, cut across the central highway to Paris at Arcis and continued on to Châlons-sur-Marne.

Napoleon planned to concentrate his forces at Troyes then to pivot on Arcis-sur-Aube, using that north-south highway to fall swiftly on the flanks of any enemy column marching westwards towards Paris. He wished to be able to move north or south of the rivers at will, so all the bridges had to be preserved; he ordered the engineers to build redoubts or block-houses at either end, from which small forces of infantry could hold them securely against any attack by cavalry. He directed that his main administrative installations should be sited in the area enclosed by the Marne in the north and the Aube-Siene in the south. His main administrative headquarters he sited at Sézanne, a central positon between Vitry and Paris. Depots holding 20 days rations of biscuited bread-cheaper, Napoleon thriftily noted, than biscuits-together with hospitals were to be formed at La Fert é-sous-Jouarre, Château-Thierry, Meaux and Épernay. The sick and wounded were to be evacuated from them to Picardy. They were not to pass through Paris. It was infortunate that the central highway betweenArcis and Nogent lay south of the river. To General Clarke in Paris he wrote, “I Require a route to Arcis-sur Aube from Paris which does not cross the Aube…I require a route from Arcis to Sézanne and thence to Ferté-sous-Jouarre. Send sappers and surveyors to reconnoitre the route and improve the roads and bridges as much as possible. No convoy is to move south of the Seine or Aube, with out my special permission.”

He sent a note to his Chief of Engineers instructing him that Vitry should be fortified as strongly as possible. Troyes, Arcis and Châlons were to be capable of beating off a sudden assualt. ‘All bridges from here to Nogent and from Nogent to Melun and the Pont-sur-Yonne are to be put in a state of defense.’

During the afternoon of 31 January 1814 he prepared for the move to Troyes, He instructed Berthier at 1 P.M., ‘Order the Duke of Ragusa [Marmont] to take his corps to Lesmont [from Vassy] and place a rearguard at Maizières. On arrival at Lesmont he will find the bridge established. He will consolidate it…and push an advanced guard to Piney [about six miles west of the river].‘ But he had left to late. On the morning of 1 February dense columns of enemy troops began to descend into the plains before La Rothière. He hastily recalled Marmont from Vassy and summoned Gérard from Piney to cross the Aube by Dienville.

While Napoleon had been perfecting his plans Schwarzenberg had been bring up his men. Aggressive patrolling by the French on the 31st misled the Allies into expecting an attack. Standing on the heights above Trannes with the Aube on their left and a trackless forest on their right, nothing could have suited them better; they waited patiently for an attack that never came.

By the 31st Schwarzenberg had concentrated about Trannes the corps of Gyulai, that of Prince Eugen of Württenberg and the reserve under Barclay de Tolly, which included the Prussian and Russian Guards. Colloredo with his corps was already west of the Aube and might soon threaten the road to Troyes; Wrede marching up from Joinville was to attack Vassy with Wittgenstein. With about 54,000 troops Napoleon confronted perhaps 80,000 in battle array with another 30,000 menacing his flanks. It seemed the war might end that day. Used as he was to making his enemy conform to his wishes, perhaps on occasion he took too little note of what his opponents intended. But it was in part just his arrogant near-contemp for his enemy that made his movements so swift and unpredictable.

Schwarzenberg entrusted the conduct of the Battle of La Rothière to Blücher and put under his orders for the occasion his two corps at Trannes, those of Gyulai and Württemberg. No doubt Schwarzenberg reflected that if Blücher succeeded everyone would be pleased, whereas if he failed the Emperor of Austria might not entirely regret an Allied reverse; in such an event he personally (Schwarzenberg) might find Blücher easier to handle.

On the morning of 1 February the weather grew even more vile; the damp cold bit into the waiting soldiers while a gloomy sky heavy with snow enfolded the scene. At 1 P.M. the allied columns came to grips with the French and snow started to fall, blanketing the whole area in a swirling white fog. The ground, however, was not frost bound and the glutinous blue clay clung to the boots of the infantry and hooves of the cavalry while the guns and transports sand axle-deep. Yet despite these appalling conditions a sanguinary struggle developed. Caring nothing for the numbers opposed to them, the French infantry stubbornly stood their ground. On the allied side Württembergs corps seized the wooded slopes above La Giberie only to be driven out. Müffling related that Prince Eugen sent messengers asking for reinforcements; Blücher replied that the battle must be decided on the plain of La Rothière where Napoleon stood with his principal forces and reserves. Then, Müffling went on, the Swedish General Toll arrived ‘and called out loudly in German, “The Crown Prince must have reinforcements’. Blücher looked at the General in some surprise then looked away without speaking. General Toll started to scream at him.’ Müffling intervened. “I was so irritated by hi behaviour that I called out to him that he who holds the valley holds the heights and he who attempts to decide the battle on a false point deserves to be beaten.’ Perhaps not altogether surprisingly, Toll galloped off in a fury to the Tsar, who with Schwarzenberg and the King of Prussia were gazing at the battle in the plain rather as though they were romans enjoying a gladiatorial show. Even the Tsar was cautious about crossing Blücher and said no more than that the old man could call on reserve of he needed more troops.

The French lines sagged but did not break. Wrede attacking into a vacuum at Vassy, pushed on towards the sound of the guns. At about 5 o’clock in the evening he drove in on Marmonts left. Marmont gave ground and turned to the new threat; then the grey day turned into a blustery night and coordinated operations came to an end. {Some accounts trace attack and counterattack up till 11 P.M. Napoleon left he battle field about 8:30 P.M. and it can be assumed that by that time the serious fighting had ended.} Nappoleon had staved off a disaster, but now he had no alternative but to withdraw or be surrounded the next day. The withdrawal would be perilous enough in the face of such odds.

Napoleon returned to the château at Brienne and at 9 o’clock that evening dictated his orders for the withdrawal. Marmont was to cover it and remain on the west bank of Aube, the remained to file over the bridge at Lesmont and march on Piney. Any vehicle found on the road after 2 0’clock in the morning was to be burnt. He had to leave some 60 guns and much valuable equipment behind him; there was no hope of extricating them.

At 4 A.M. on 2 February he stood on the terrace of the château looking out over the battle field. The retreat had progressed remarkably well. Over by La Rothière flickering pinpoints of lights revealed some bivouac fires still alight, but those of the French by now were deserted. All was quiet and his men were beyond the low ridge that separates Lesmont from Brienne. It was time to go. He had broken contact with great skill but had suffered an undeniable reverse. The affair had begun badly. His men trampling over the river and towards Piney through the darkness felt weary and depressed. They had fought like heroes, and now it appeared that it had all been for nothing.

To General Caulaincourt, about to open vital peace negotiations at Châtillon, he wrote on 5 February bidding him to accept any terms he could obtain; then withdrew his carte blanche by insisting that they must neither demean France nor himself. His misfortunes weighed on his spirits, but his inner conviction that his star would reassert itself and triumph in the end, remained unchanged. But meanwhile the Allies made it very clear to Caulaincourt that there could be no question now of conceding the ‘natural boundaries of France.’

On the morning of 2 February Müffling rode into Brienne and entered the château once again. The bridge at Lesmont had been destroyed and no immediate pursuit seemed either possible or wise, taking into account the appalling weather and the fatigue suffered by the troops. It did not appear to be necessary anyway. As they exchanged bitter weather outside for the hospitable atmosphere of the château and the baggage came up, the Tsar optimistically toasted Blücher, ‘Today you have set the crown of all your victories; mankind will bless you’. Blücher wrote his wife, ‘for me it is the happiest day of my life…‘ The men were as jubilant, and when Blücher went around their bivouacs next morning wild cheering greeted him wherever he went. To General Reynier, about to be released on parole, they boasted that they would be in Paris before him.

FORCES ENGAGED:

FRENCH: (Napoleon)[Total 54,000] included: Gérard (5,000); Victor (15,000); Marmont (18,000); Ney (16,00)

ALLIED: (Blücher) [Total 112,000] Included: Gyulai (15,000); Sacken (20,000); Olsufiev (5,000); Württemberg (12,000); Wrede (25,000); Barclay de Tolly (35,000)

SOURCE: Napoleon: The last Campaigns 1813-15; BY ; James Lawford

Napoleonic Wars:Montmirail Campaign 1-10 February 1814 (After La Rothiére, Part 1)

 

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