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

As they paused at Brienne the jubilant sovereigns and their generals drew up their plans for what Blücher regarded as little more than a triumphal progress to the capital. They decided that Schwarzenberg should press on towards Paris by the great highway which ran by Bar-sur-Aube to Troyes and on to Paris by Montereau, using the second route by Mèry and Nogent to ease his administrative problems and to keep in touch with Blücher. The latter meanwhile would become independent, head to the north, then drive down to Paris along the valley of the Marne. He would pick up Yorck’s corps, at that time facing MacDonald near Vitry, and be joined shortly afterwards by Kleist’s Prussian Corps, and another detachment from Langeron’s under General Kapzevich; these last two had been release from blockaiding frontier fortresses by fresh troops from Germany. Blücher would then have nearly 60,000 men under his command and should be able to look after himself whatever Napoleon might do. The plan had two further advantages; first his supply columns , moving from the Rhine by way of Verdun or Nancy, could keep well clear of the roads to Basle used by Shcwarzenberg; secondly French resistance in the Netherlands was collapsing; already General Winzingerode with 30,000 troops from the Army of the North was marching on Laon and could watch his right flank. The old man’s eyes must have glistened with delight as the scheme unfolded. MacDonald was now isolated near Châlons-sur-Marne. A swift blow and he could cut him off from the rest of Napoleon’s army like a cowboy a steer from the herd.

Yorck, who had commanded a corps under MacDoland during the Russian campaign of 1812, would be unusually well placed to extract revenge for any slights he had been made to endure, and Yorck was an expert at discerning slights and intrigues. The new deployment took a little time to arrange, for with Wittgenstein’s and Wrede’s corps to the north-east of Sacken and Olsufiev, the lines of communication had become hopelessly tangled; where the supply convoys of two corps crossed which other the resulting traffic jam was not unlike the chaotic spectacle associated with a 20th century public holiday.

A shot rest was not unwelcome to either side. Napoleon meanwhile had withdrawn unmolested to Troyes. With his inferiority in numbers he had to wait for his enemy to advance and stretch out his columns before he could develop a strategic plan of his own. For him the time of waiting was testing. His soldiers felt downcast after an apparent defeat, and with the Allied army knocking as it were, at the outer courts of Paris the nation had begun to panic. In Troyes itself, as the historian Henri Houssaye later observed, ” The only direction in which people exerted themselves was to encourage the desertion of the conscripts…a large number, amounting to 6,000 left the ranks.

Numbers were of the first importance. Napoleon wrote letter after letter to his brother, Joseph, his deputy in Paris, imploring him to raise fresh regiments, and waited with desperate impatience for a corps of two infantry divisions and one cavalry division that he had ordered to join him from Soult’s Army of Spain, now defending the south-western borders of France. The news from the Netherlands was black, General Maison being apparently unable to keep the field; but near Lyon Augereau had heavily repulsed and attack by some formations from Schwarzenberg’s army under Count Bubna.

Schwarzenberg, worried about a possible French thrust on Geneva, hastily strengthened his forces in the south. Meanwhile he found the sight of the Emperor brooding over the countryside from Troyes bad for his nerves. After his defeat at La Rothière Napoleon should surely be sheltering somewhere north of the Seine. The Austrian Prince feared that if he advanced directly on Troyes he could find himself with a vengeful Emperor in front and an unfordable river behind. The prospect did not please him. He stretched out a tentative hand towards La Guillotière on the Barse, about five miles south-east of Troyes, only to have it smartly slapped by Mortier’s Guard. It was enough. He swerved away south, and established his headquarters at Bar-sur-Seine, concentrating his army about him. He called down Wittgenstein from Arcis-sur-Aube to a position near Piney. For the next two days (9 and 10 February) he rested his army. Then he began to feel his way westwards well to the south of Troyes, proposing to move carefully to the river Yonne, before turning north towards Paris. He might capture Fontainbleau, but beyond that he was not prepared to plan.

At Troyes Napoleon watched and waited, ready to pounce if the Austrian blundered. As the peril from Blücher in the north became more evident he shifted his main administrative base from Sézanne to Nogent on the Siene. He pulled back Marmont (VI Corps) to defend it and ordered all his reinforcements to concentrate there. Then he fancied he saw a flaw in Schwarzenberg’s dispositions; he was about to swoop when he received letters from Joseph in Paris, saying that panic griped the city and that Blücher was almost hourly expected. On 6 February he left Troyes by way of Fontaine-les-Grés and marched to Nogent, arriving on the 7th. It had been a remarkable strategic performance. Despite the earlier reversers. By pausing at Troyes when a lesser general might well have sought refuge north of the Siene, he had pushed Blücher and Schwarzenberg apart and now stood poised at Nogent with his whole army, except for MacDonald’s XI Corps, concentrated between two and perfectly balanced to attack either. The hand of the great master had lost none of it’s cunning.

Meanwhile Blücher, under the happy delusion that Schwarzenberg pinned down a Napoleon still reeling from his recent defeat, confidently began his march on Paris. Only MacDonald and perhaps a few semi-trained National Guards without proper weapons stood in his way. It might have been wise to wait till Kleist and Kapzevich, who were marching up from the Rhine, to arrive, but old Marshal ‘Forwards’ hated to wait for anything or anyone and it was unthinkable to miss the chance to trap MacDonald with his weak corps little more than 5,000 strong.

By 4 February Blücher had already thrust 30 miles north of Brienne to Sommesous. Here everything seemed eminently satisfactory. Yorck had pushed the French out of Châlons and was repairing the bridge there, cavalry patrols had fanned out as far as Sézanne 25 miles to the west, and now came the splendid news from Schwarzenberg that Napoleon had taken refuge in Troyes and was still well south of the Aube-Siene river-line. With Wittgenstein guarding his flank at Arcis-sur-Aube and linking him with Schwarzenberg, Blücher seemed like a matador poised to deliver the fatal blow on Paris.

However, he had to wait three days until the bridges at Châlons, blown by Marshal MacDonald, was again fit to take traffic; despite the fortunate capture of a French ammunition column, his stocks were still dangerously low. By 7 February, however, the wagons were rolling over the bridge and by the 8th the old Field Marshal, who had been straaining impatiently at his administrative leash, plunged forward.

From Châlons, as already mentioned, the great highway to Paris followed the valley of the Marne through Épernary to Château-Thierry; here it crossed the north bank to avoid the wide loop in the river and ran direct to La Ferté-sous-Jouarre to cross again to the south. MacDonald, retreating down it, was somewhere between Éoernary and Château-Thierry. From Châlons, however, another road to Paris described a shallow arc to the south of the main road and the river and followed the valley to the Petit Morin through Bergéres, Étoges, Champaubert, Vauchamps, Montirial and Viels-Maisons to join the main road again at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre.

About eight miles further south a road went westward from Vitry-le-François by Sommesous, La Fère-Champenoise and Sézanne to La Ferté-Gaucher to join the main road at Trilport. It was not a particularly good road. Napoleon himself described the secondary roads as affreux and in places covered in mud to a depth of six feet.

Blücher told Yorck to follow MacDonald by the main road along the valley of the Marne, while Sacken, leaving some of his cavalry under General Karpov at Sézanne, raced along the southern road for Châlons to cut the French marshal off north of the river at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre. Blücher himself intended to remain at Étoges with Olsufiev’s detachment near by until Kliest and Kapzevich arrived with their men. Probably on about the 10th or 11th. He understood that General Seslawin with 12 regiments of Cossacks would take over responsibility for Sézanne in a couple of days.

By the evening of the 9th Blücher had set up his headquarters in the château at Étoges with Olsufiev holding forward to Champaubert; Sacken was at Montmirail on the southern road, about 12 miles west, Yorck on the northern near Dormans, roughly halfway between Épernay and Château-Thierry; Kliest with most of his sorps had arrived at Châlons and Kapzevoich at Vitry. During the course of the day Karpov reported that the day before (8th February) some French troops had driven in his Cossack outposts at Villenauxe 14 miles south of Sézanne.

That evening a courier brought dispatches from Schwarzenberg and the Tsar, dated 6 February. Schwarzenberg stated,’ I will not follow Napoleon who has retreated from Troyes towards Nogent, but prefer marching to the left by Sens to Fountainbleau’. But if Napoleon came northwards after Schwarzenberg had disappeared south, the strategic sistuation would be radically altered and not for the better. The Tsar clearly felt so. He wrote that he was worried by the exposed situation of Wittgenstein at Arcis-sur-Aube and wished Kliest to be sent to join him. To replace him Winzingerode, who was thought to be not far from Laon, would be placed under Blücher’s command when he arrived.

A 8 o’clock that evening, as Blücher with his staff officers was sitting in a room of the château pondering the situation, a Russian officer rushed in shouting,” The enemy is here.’ The russian battalion garrisoning the château stood-to, while Blücher and his staff hurriedly assembled in the courtyard and mounted their chargers. Nothing happened, but Blücher had experienced some uncomfortable moments in the château. He took his headquarters to spend an unpleasant night in the field of Vertus. It transpired that some squadrons of French lancers had charged Olsufiev’s headquarters at Baye several times before vanishing in the direction of Sézanne.

This was very strange: Karpov, left in Sézanne by Sacken, must have abandoned that town without bothering to inform anyone. Even though the Cossacks, admirable as light irregular cavalry, were not much value in large-scale cavalry combat, Müffling felt anxious. Sitting on his horse in the cold dark night he discussed the matter with Gneisenau. ‘I represented…that squadrons coming from Sézanne announced not only the occupation of Sézanne…thier resolute attack indicated an offensive power stationed between Sézanne and Baye. The first thing to be done was to recall General Sacken from Montmirail to Champaubert’.

Gneisenau dismissed the first suggestion. Sackens cavalry had been holding Sézanne and Sacken was best placed to judge the situation. Gneisenau suspected the French had merely station abody of troops in Sézanne to block the Vitry-Paris road. He agreed that Müffling should send an ADC to Sacken recalling him from Montmirail to Champaubert, but flustrated Müffling’s intentions by adding that if Sacken thought it safe to do so, he could continue the advance to La Freté-sur-Jouarre.

The next problem was the Tsar’s request to send Kleist south to join Wittgenstein, presumably at Arcis-surAube (in fact he had moved father south). Müffling suggested an ingenious plan. If Kleist and Kapzevich were to move tomorrow to Sézanne it would meet the Tsar’s requirements, allow Blücher to retain control over his two commanders and help clear up the mystery of Sézanne. The Field-Marshal assented, and the necessary orders were issued.

During the long, cold and uncomfortable night news came in that Napoleon himself had been at Villenauxe. Matters began to look serious. If Yorck crossed to the north bank of the Marne at Château-Thierry he would be separated by the river from Sacken. Blücher dispatched orders to him to maintain the closest possible touch with Sacken at Montmirail. Then from some prisoners he learned positively that Napoleon had spent the night at Sézanne. Blücher thought it most probable that the Emperor intended no more than to march west, unite with MacDonald at Meaux and cover the Marne valley route to Paris, but one never knew with Napoleon. At 7 AM he wrote to Yorck: “ Vertus 10 February 7AM; The Emperor Napoleon has moved from Nogent by Villenauxe on Sézanne where according to prisoners he spent the night. This move may be to enable the enemy to join MacDonald and begin an offensive towards the Marne. In that case I must concentrate the army at Vertus. If you have not begun your move on Montmirail do so at once. Send out cavalry patrols from Montmirail towards Sézanne. The bridge at Château-Thierry must be re-established and abridge of boats thrown across the river, so that if unfortunately the enemy cuts you and Sacken off from my army you can save yourselves on the right bank of the Marne”

SOURCE: Napoleon: the Last Campaigns 1813-15: By; James Lawford

Napoleonic War: Montmirail Champaign 1-10 February 1814 (Part 2)

Napoleonic Wars: Battle of La Rothière 1 February 1814


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