Napoleonic Wars: Battle of Montmirail 11 February 1814 (Part 4)

Napoleon was in a quandary. Although most of his cavalry was present, only two infantry divisions had come up, Ricard’s men and Friant’s division of the Old Guard. He dare not commit many of Friant’s men was this would leave him without a reserve. Any advance north of the road would be risky while the Prussians could threaten his flank. For a time the cannon boomed on amid heavy showers of rain which must have added to the hazards facing the gunners. Ricard’s outnumbered division, which had retired to Le Tremblay, made an unenthusiastic attack at Marchis and was repelled. Then the Russians counterattacked and secured a foothold in Le Tremblay. Now the battle languished. Ricard still held part of Le Tremblay to the south of the road, while Friant with his division of the Old Guard watched the Russians in Les Grenaux. Napoleon lined up Guyot’s, Laferrière-Levesque’s and Colbert’s divisions of cavalry of the Guard and Defrance’s Garde d’Honneur east of the Château-Thierry and north of the Paris roads ready to launch then against the Russian cavalry, but while the Russians held Les Grenaux and an undisclosed number of Prussians the heights by Fontenelle, such an attack could not be contemplated. The terrible state of the roads seems to have ruined all Napoleon’s plans.

Then in the distance a long line of bearskins came into view. Michel with his division of the Old Guard was approcaching. Napoleon, watching the battle on horse back with his customary indifference to fire, at once ordered Friant to storm Les Grenaux while Michel guarded against any enemy reaction from the direction of Fontenelle. Friant’s Old Guard went in to action with an irresistible élan. Ney , his divisions of the Young Guard still on the road marching up, led the Old Guard forward on foot. The serried ranks of bearskins plunged in to the farm. Pirch over at Fontenelle came forward to help his stricken ally. Michel swung his division round to face him and a bloody struggle ensued.

Ney and his veterans speedily oeverwhelmed the Russians in Les Grenaux. The way forward was open. Napoleon gave the word and his massed squadrons crashed down upon the Russian horse and broke them. Now the French cavalry erupted all over the plain. Sacken had begun his withdrawal towards Château-Thierry when the thunderbolt struck. In the gathering darkness the Russian infantry formed into their squares and moved slowly northward harried by Colbert’s and Leferrière’s troopers. Guyot plunged southwards to attack Marchais from behind while Ricard aided by a couple of battalions of Friant’s Old Guard, attacked from the front. The Russians withdrew, taking cover from the relentless cavalry charges in the woods south of the Paris road. The fighting reached the great fury near Fontenelle where the Château-Thierry road switched-back to the north over the low range of hills. Michel’s division, led by Marshal Mortier in person and aided by Defrance’s cavalry, strove desperately to break through along the Château-Thierry road. A break here might have isolated most of Sacken’s army. But Pirch’s division, fighting with magnificent determination, gave ground but refused to break. Yorck, now himself on the battlefield, fed forward some of his cavalry under Jurgas. Pirch was severaly wounded; his brigade lost 1,000 men, a quarter of its strength, but it kept the road barred. Then the night and the weather closed in on a scene of wild confusion and the fighting perforce had to stop. Most of the isolated Russsian right wing found its way in the darkness to Viels-Maisons and thence northwards, but 1,000 men were captured and eight guns. In addition the action cost the Russians 1,500 casualties. The Prussians lost 1,200 men-relatively speaking far more than either of the other two contestants-and the French 2,000.

Next morning the Allies began their retreat to Château-Thierry with the Prussians furnishing the rear guard. Napoleon launched a brilliant pursuit. While one column of cavalry followed up the main road to Château-Thierry, another made a detour to Viels-Maison and then pushed north, well placed to out flank any rear guard positions. Hampered by the guns and transports of the two corps, all crammed on a single road, the Prussians withdrew only slowly. With the scent of victory in their nostrils the French cavalry raced after them. At Les Caquerets, five miles south of Château-Thierry, they drove the Allied cavalry from the field and broke the rear guard. Then they rampaged over the flat valley of the Marne to Château-Thierry itself. Some 3,000 prisoners, 30 guns and innumerable baggage wagons fell into their hands, before the last Prussians crossed to the north bank of the Marne and burnt down the bridge behind them.

For Napoleon it had been a remarkable victory. The two Allied armies totaled 30,000 seasoned fighting men under able and tough commanders. Napoleon probably never had more than 20,000 men at his disposal and at times far less. Seldom can an army so inferior in numbers have harried so unmercifully an enemy not only superior in strength and by no means deficient in courage or skill. Well might Napoleon write lyrically of the achievements of his Guards. The battle was curiously paradoxical. The battlefield was reported to be a bog, but cavalry have rarely been used to greater effect.

The armies of Yorck and Sacken suffered their worst losses retreating before an enemy greatly inferior to them, after fighting a battle that had by no means been an irretrievable disaster. Magnificently as his soldiers fought, it would almost seem that Napoleon defeated his opponents as much by imposing his will on the two Allied generals as by actually beating them in the field. He later suggested that had MacDonald advanced to Château-Thierry, not an enemy would have escaped. This is merely an Imperial flight of fancy. He gave no instructions to MacDonald to advance to Château-Thierry. The Marshal would have had two broken bridges to cross, and if by some magic he had arrived, Yorck had taken due precautions against an attack and had ample resources with which to beat it off. The allied generals did not pay Napoleon’s marshals the reverence they paid to the great master himself. As an interesting possibility, had there been no escape open to them, Sacken and Yorck might have exploited their numbers to more advantage. It does no justice to the extraordinary speed and certainty exhibited by Napoleon to suggest that his opponents were inferior, they were only inferior to him.

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

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


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