Battle of Champaubert, 10 February 1814

The battle of Champaubert (10 February 1814) was the first significant French success during the campaign of 1814, and saw Napoleon defeat an isolated Russian division at the start of his impressive 'Six Day's Campaign'.

The 1814 campaign began poorly for the French. Their attempts to defend the frontier failed almost without a fight, and the Allied armies of Blucher and Schwarzenberg began to close in on each other, and to threaten Paris. Napoleon responded by moving from Paris to Chalons-sur-Marne, from where he attempted to defeat Blucher. An attempt to catch him at St. Dizier (27 January 1814) failed because most of Blucher's men had already crossed the Marne and were at Brienne on the Aube. Napoleon then attempted to hit Blucher at Brienne (29 January 1814) and either prevent him from moving south-east to join Schwarzenberg or at least cut his army in half and defeat part of it. The French didn't achieve either of these objectives, but they did win a victory that improved the morale of the new recruits. Blucher retreated south, and was reinforced by Schwarzenberg. He was then able to launch an attack on the French at La Rothiere (1 February 1814), but although the French were badly outnumbered and had been surprised while beginning to move away, Napoleon managed to hold on all day and escaped with his army intact. On 3 February Napoleon reached Troyes on the Seine, where he stopped.

Battles of the French Campaign of 1814
Battles of the
French Campaign
of 1814

On the Allied side the decision was made to split up. Schwarzenberg was left to pin Napoleon down on the Seine, and hopefully push him back to Paris. Blucher was to move north into the Marne valley, to bring him closer to the rest of his army, which was advancing from the north-east. He would then be able to advance down the Marne towards Paris, with only Marshal Macdonald's weak forces in his way.

Once he reached Troyes, Napoleon posted troops on the roads north to Arcis-sur-Aube, east to Bar-sur-Aube and south-east to Bar-sur-Seine, to try and discover where the Allies were going. He suspected that Blucher was trying to get around his northern flank to reach Nogent-sur-Seine, and hoped to be able to defeat Schwarzenberg, then turn back to deal with Blucher. The French also had some successes against the Allies – Wrede was stopped by Marmont near Arcis-sur-Aube, an attempt to cut the Arcis to Troyes road failed, and chaos was caused when Austrian and Prussian columns attempted to cross at Vendeuvre, east of Troyes. This slowed down the Allied movement.

Portrait of Marshal Jacques Macdonald, Duke of Taranto, 1765-1840
Portrait of
Marshal Jacques Macdonald,
Duke of Taranto, 1765-1840

Early on 5 February Napoleon ordered Marmont to move down the Seine to Nogent. Later on the same day a message arrived from Macdonald announcing that Blucher's troops had appeared on the Marne, and that Yorck had captured Chalons-sur-Marne. Napoleon realised that Paris was now vulnerable to attack, but so was Blucher. On 6 February most of the army left Troyes and moved west to Nogent. Mortier was left at Troyes, from where he conducted a reconnaissance in force against Schwarzenberg's flank. This worried Schwarzenberg so much that he ordered a retreat back towards Bar-sur-Aube, creating a larger gap between him and Blucher.

Napoleon now needed to discover the location of the rest of Blucher's army. On 7 February he ordered Marmont north-east to Sezanne. On the same day Macdonald reported that Yorck had reached Epernay on the Marne, so his corps was clearly advancing west down the river. On 8 February Napoleon sent most of his cavalry and part of the Guard to join Marmont at Sezanne.
 
The key information arrived early on 9 February. Marmont, who had reached Champaubert, to the north of Sezanne, found General Osten-Sacken with 15,000-20,000 men at Montmirail, fifteen miles to his west. Yorck was known to be somewhere to the north-east, on the Marne, and on 9 February was at Dormans, nearly fifteen miles to the N/NE. Olsufiev was isolated at Champaubert with only 3,000 men. Blucher was at Vertus, ten miles to the east of Champaubert, with part of Kapsevich's 7,000 men. Finally Kleist, with another 8,000 men, was still back at Chalons.

Napoleon realised that he had a chance to get into the middle of Blucher's army and defeat each corps in turn. He ordered his main army to move north to Sezanne, then to Champaubert, from where he could turn on the most vulnerable part of the Allied army. The allies now played even further into Napoleon's hands. Schwarzenberg's retreat had ended, and by the 9th he was back at Troyes and expecting a battle at Nogent. He asked Blucher to make an attack on Napoleon's northern flank, and on the 9th Blucher ordered Kleist, Kapzevitsh and Olsufiev to move to Sezanne, ready to launch that attack.

Late on 9 February Blucher discovered that Napoleon was already in Sezanne, and decided to try and surround him. Sacken was ordered to press Macdonald north of the Marne. Yorck was to move to Montmirail. Blucher joined up with Kleist and Kapzevitsh, and ordered them to move south to La Fere Champenoise (east of Sezanne), then turn west to head for Sezanne, with the aim of getting behind the advancing French. Olsufiev was left isolated at Champaubert, in the path of the advancing French army. Although his force is often called a division, it was actually a weak corps (9th Corps), made up of two divisions – General Udom's 9th Infantry Division and General Kornilov's 15th Infantry Division.

Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt
Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt

Olsufiev has some warning that the French were close by. Champaubert sat on a crossroads north of the Petit Moran river. Half way between Champaubert and the river was the hamlet of Baye. A series of hills then lined the river, and the road passed through a narrow valley from St. Prix. If the Russians had been positioned in this gap, then Napoleon would have struggled to cross the Petit Moran. Instead Olsufiev left the area undefended, even after a French cavalry detachment had been chased out of Bayes on 9 February.

On the morning of 10 February Olsufiev's 5,000 men and 24 guns were deployed at the village of Baye, south of Champaubert. By 10am his outposts were being pressured by French cavalry, and had to retreat back onto his main position. Despite being badly outnumbered Olsufiev decided to stand and fight, perhaps to restore his reputation, which had been somewhat damaged earlier in the campaign, and perhaps because he expected support from Blucher.

Portrait of Marshal Michel Ney (1769-1815)
Portrait of
Marshal Michel Ney
(1769-1815)

The French had the best part of two corps present at Champaubert. Ney commanded around 14,000 men from the Imperial Guard, while Marshal Marmont had 8,000 men of VI Corps. The French also had 2,800 men in I Cavalry Corps (General Doumerc).

Marmont's infantry led the French attack, with Legrange's 3rd Division in the lead and Ricard's 8th Division following. The battle began when French cavalry began to probe the Russian outposts. Olsufiev sent General Udom with two jager battalions towards St. Prix, and Udom forced the French of out Bayes. However Marmont's main columns then arrived on the scene, and despite being reinforced by two more jager battalions the Russians were unable to hold the village. Olsufiev decided to defend a new position 500 yards south of the village, with his left protected by a valley and his front by a small forest.

Marmont ordered his two divisions to attack with Ricard on the right and Lagrange on the left. The Russians were soon forced to retreat to retreat, and an attempt to rally at Baye failed. Olsufiev then formed a new line just north of Baye. Once again the French attacked and forced the Russians back, and now they began to threaten the key east-west road through Champaubert. Olsufiev left two regiments to hold Champaubert and attacked east down the road towards Etoges, but he was unable to break through.

The French didn't have everything their own way. On their left Lagrange ran into the main Russian gun battery, his division suffered heavy losses and began to retreat. His retreat ended when Ney and Napoleon arrived with the Guard Artillery. At about the same time a force of 2,000 French cavalry got into the Russian rear, having passed through Fromentieres to the west of Champaubert.

Olsufiev's force was soon split into two. General Poltoratzki, who had been left to defend Champaubert, was slowly forced north by Lagrange, and by 3pm he was almost two miles north of the village, heading for the shelter of some woods. The French summoned him to surrender, but at first he refused. Eventually a combination of artillery fire and the discovery of French troops in the woods forced him to surrender his two regiments and 10 guns.

Olsufiev's part of the force did a little better. His attempt to break through to Etoges failed, and he began to retreat north towards La Caure. As he got close to that village he tried to shift his troops around to the left ready for their escape, but this exposed his right flank to a devestating cavalry attack. His force scattered into fragments and fled into some nearby woods. The French had already surrounded this forest, and Olsufiev and many of his men were captured. Olsufiev himself was taken by a 19 year old conscript with only six months of experience.

The only part of the Russian corps to escape was a detachment led by Generals Kornilov and Udom. They managed to gather the remaining guns, and something between 1,000 and 2,000 men, and managed to escape north. The Russians lost around 1,800 prisoners and 1,200 dead in the battle, along with most of their guns.

Blucher made no attempts to help Olsufiev during the day and for much of the day refused to believe that the attack was serious. News of the defeat reached him late in the day, and he rapidly altered his plans. He moved north back to Vertus. Yorck and Sacken were ordered to concentrate at Montmirail, and then fight their way through Napoleon's forces to join up with Blucher.

This failed to take into account anything Napoleon might do. On the night of 10-11 February he left Marmont to watch Blucher, while he led the rest of his forces west towards Montmirail. Elsewhere Oudinot was ordered to sent two divisions north from Provins (north-west of Nogent) to support Mortier, while Macdonald was ordered to march back up the Meuse and capture Chateau-Thierry. Napoleon hoped to be able to defeat Sacken and Yorck south of the Meuse, and then force them into a trap with the river behind them.

The first part of this plan worked perfectly. Napoleon defeated Sacken at Montmirail (11 February 1814), after Yorck failed to make much of a contribution. The defeated Allies retreated north, but Macdonald had failed to reach Chateau-Thierry, and they were able to escape across the Marne to relative safety.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (1 April 2016), Battle of Champaubert, 10 February 1814 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_champaubert.html

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