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

As the morning of 10 February 1814 progressed, about midday Müffling’s ADC. Lieutenant Gerlach, rode in from Sacken’s headquarters. The General though the expulsion of the Cossacks from Sézanne of no significance and had gone on to La Ferté-sous-Jouarre. MacDonald, however, had out-distanced him and, destroying the bridges over the Seine at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre and Trilport, had retired to Meaux. Gerlach remarked that he had ridden through Champaubert at 11 0’clock that morning and all seemed quiet. Blücher sent peremptory ordereds to Yorck to go to Montmirail and himself set out to La Ferté-Champenoise where Kliest and Kapzevich were due to meet before going the 11 milies to Sézanne.

As he went, the dull thudding of cannon fire came from the north-west in the general direction of Champaubert and Baye. There was nothing headquarters could do except hope that if Olsufiev was in trouble he would take to the woods. Towards evening so fugitives straggled into La Fère-Champenoise with a story of disaster. Olsufiev had been captured and most of his men killed or taken prisoner. Blücher halted his advance on Sézanne. Kliest’s men had already marched a long way and the wild country round La Fére-Champenoise would give some protection against the powerful French cavalry. They bivouacked for the night. Blücher had with him about 13,000 men all told, including about 500 horse; some 4,000 of Kliest’s corps including most of his cavalry were still somewhere between Châlons and the Rhine.

In the morning Blücher marched on Bergèresm and camped; during the day he accumulated about 1,000 stragglers from Olsufiev’s unhappy detachment. Some 3,000 must have been either killed or captured. Blücher anticipated that now Napoleon would turn east and attack him. With virtually no cavalry he dared not advance to Montmirail; equally he dared not retreat to Châlons. If the French cavalry caught him in the plains surrounding that town he would be cut to pieces. He stayed in camp and waited for information none came. For the rest of the day and most of the 12th he remained at Bergères in ahideous state of uncertainty. On the 13th a letter arrived from Yorck saying simply that Sacken had driven MacDonald across the Marne at Trilport, then had marched back to find Napoleon across the road at Viels-Maisons. There the message ended. All remained quiet except that some 800 of Kliest’s cavalry rode in and some French were identified at Étoges. Blücher’s old impatience began once again to take charge. He advanced, drove the French out of Étoges and stopped at Champaubert, proposing to march to Montmirail next day.

Next morning Blücher had gone about four miles along the Montmirail road and was approaching Vauchamps when his advance guard ran into a strong enemy post and a cense cloud of cavalry, well supported by artillery, descended on his marching column. The Prussian cavalry, haplessly out numbered, were soon driven off. A Cossack captured an officer of the French Old Guard. The Frenchman told Blücher that he was in the presence of the Emperor himself. Sacken and Yorck were north of the Marne. Napoleon had just completed a night march from Château-Thierry in order to destroy him.

Blücher and his army were in mortal peril. His one chance was to retreat before the French infantry could catch him up. He put Kapzevich on the right of the road and Kleist on the left while the guns traveled down it, dropping in and out of action as they went. During the bleak, cold afternoon the two columns slowly progressed eastwards while the French cavalry with their shouts of “Vive l’Empereur!” came roaring down in charge after charge. Müffling, marching with Kleist and checking progress with his habitual thoroughness, became alarmed. The French cavalry might head the columns by a wooded defile near Étoges and the survivors be compelled to surrender. Blücher, fearlessly riding about encouraging his men, was moving with too measured a tread. Müffling sent a message suggesting it would be wise to hurry. The old man replied with his accustomed bluntness. “ If Kleist did not run so immoderately fast all would remain compact.‘ Müffling, noted that a regiment of French cuirassiers had cut in ahead of the advance guard, composed of of three raw Russian infantry battalions, and was preparing to charge. The Russian infantry halted quite steadily and allowed the cuirassiers to close in. Then on the word ‘FIRE!’, every man blasted off his musket in one stupendous vvolley. It was poorly aimed and few Frenchmen fell; fortunately the cuirassiers turned and trotted off for, with their muskets empty, the Russian infantry lay at their mercy. Müffling thought ‘this was the time to make these inexperienced soldiers believe they had done something heroic. I Hurrahed them loudly. They moved briskly on, their drums struck up a march and all the drums of the corps followed their beat.

The light began to fade from the heavy skies and the muddy ground either side of the road prevented the French from bringing up their guns. This probably saved Blücher from complete destruction; but passing through Étoges, the French cavalry under Grouchy moved a head of the Allied rear guard and charging down the narrow streets virtually annihilated them. Beyond Étoges Napoleon called off the prusuit and the weary, ravaged columns halted at their old camp at Bergère to restore some of their order. After a few hours’ rest they continued on to Châlons. Blücher had lost some 6,000 men.

When he arrived at Nogent on 7 February Napoleon discovered that MacDonald, heavily outnumbered by Yorck with some 18,000 men, had kept his own troops concentrated and left the roads to Paris by Montmirail and Sézanne completely unprotected. There was nothing to stop Bücher hammering at the gates of Paris. But Schwarzenberg had swung away to the south, and a sudden and sharp blow might be dealt to the impetuous Prussian. He ordered Marmont with 2,000 cavalry, 1,000 infantry and six guns to march that evening to Sézanne 20 miles away to the northeast. While probing Blücher’s dispositions on the Montmirail road, Marmont was to ensure the enemy knew nothing of what passed between Nogent and Sézanne.

At about 4 P.M. , while he was meditating over his next move, despatches arrived from the peace negotiators at Châtillon. Napoleon read them and blenched. With their armies less than 100 miles from Paris and no signs of a mass uprising by the French people, the Allies were prepared to offer nothing more than the borders to France as theyhad been in 1792; in the north these would exclude Antwerp and the Rhine. Berthier and his Foreign Minister, Maret, begged him to accept. He retired to his own room to ponder. At last he reappeared and passionately rejected the term. “ Never’, he cried. “Never will I leave France smaller than I found it.’ Baron Fain, his secretary, remarked that he again withdrew and threw himself upon his bed. If he did, it was not to repine. Already he was organizing his next move. He himself declared that he had a mind like desk full of drawers; when he wanted to examine one he pulled it out, then when he had finished with it he shut it away and pulled out another. When he wanted sleep, which was seldom, he shut all the drawers.

That night he worked late. He constituted a VII Corps made up of the 7th and 9th Divisions from Soult’s Army of Spain. He gave the command to Marshal Oudinot, recently recovered from typhus contracted in Germany, instructing him to watch the more westerly approaches to Paris. Pajol’s cavalry division at Sens and Allix’s infantry at Pont-sur-Yonne were to come under him. He was to place troops at Nangus and Provins and be responible for Montereau with a total of nearly 25,000 men ( Napoleon always overestimated the number of troops he placed under the command of generals). Victor with 15,000 men including Gérard’s troops , now only a division strong, was to remain at Nogent and guard the crossings over the Seine to the east. The two marshals were to liaise closely over their plans. With 40,000 men between them they should be able to keep Schwarzenberg in check.

This left Napoleon a field force of 30,000 men and 120 guns, comprising all the best regiments in his army. His infnatry would consist of the two division of conscripts in Marmont’s VI Corps, two division of the Old Guard and three of the Young numbering in all about 20,000; for cavalry he had the Cavalry of the Guard, totally about 6,000, which Defrance’s Garde d’Honneur and the I Cavalry Corps, each of 2,000 gave him 10,000 troopers in all.

He estimated Blücher could muster 45,000 men. With help from MacDonald’s XI Corps, now increased to about 7,000 men, he concluded he should be strong enough to defeat him. Writing to his brother in the midst of his other preoccupations, he found time to include a postscript about Josephine: ‘ Keep the Empress happy, she is dying of consumption.’ Then with his small by choice army he set out to demolish Blücher, little knowing he now commanded 60,000 men.

The rain fell steadily and the road to Sézanne became a sea of mud; moving was hideously difficult and the misery of the soldiers acute. Marmont (VI Corps), after herculean efforts, had arrived on the 8th and during the 9th patrolled forward, indentifying Olsufiev at Champaubert and Sacken 10 miles to the west at Montmirail. Yorck, Napoleon knew, was chasing MacDonald some where near Château-Thierry. Although much of his army was still short of Sézanne. Teams of cavalry horses were needed to drag the guns out of the mud and, as he informed his administrative chief, the army was dying of hunger. The emperor ordered an advance to Montmirail via Champaubert on the 10th.

Marmont led. Olsufiev left the bridge over the Petit Morin undefended. He made no attempt to hold the difficult country near the river, here little more than a stream. The he suddenly elected to make a stand and fight in the flat open country round Champaubert, country excellently suited to Napoleon’s powerful force of cavalry. It must be supposed that the French advance was unexpected and that Olsufiev was unable to oppose it any earlier. Perhaps some rather unpleasant comments about the conduct of his corps at Brienne, suggesting that he and his troops left unnecessarily abruptly, may have weighed with him. His decision to stand and fight was disastrous. During a wet overcast afternoon Marmont’s conscripts drove fiercely forward, while Napoleon directed his cavalry to cut the Montmirail road on both flanks of the unfortunate Russians. After a stubborn resistance they were over whelmed. Characteristically Napoleon claimed to have captured 40 of their 24 guns and 6,000 out of a detachment of 4,000. It sounded better in the Bulletins.

He did not waste a moment. He told Marmont to clear up the battlefield with a single division and gave him I Cavalry Corps with which to mask Blücher. He ordered the remained to press on through the night to Montmirail, 10 miles to the west. But it was not until 1 o’clock next morning that he inhabitants of Montmirail awoke to the clip-clopping of many hooves and threw open their windows to see the leading squadrons of the Cavalry of the Guard ride by, their splendid uniforms drenched and plastered with mud.

SOURCE: Napoleon: The Last Champaign’s 1813-15; BY: James Lawford

Napoleonic Wars: Montmirail Campaign 10-11 February 1814 (Part 3)

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

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