Battle of Chateau-Thierry, 12 February 1814

The battle of Chateau-Thierry (12 February 1814) was one of the great missed chances during Napoleon's defence of France in 1814, but was also a French victory that forced Marshal Blucher to retreat east away from Paris.

At the start of the campaign of 1814 two main Allied armies had invaded France – Schwarzenberg's Army of Bohemia on the Allied left and Blucher's Army of Silesia on the Allied right, both heading for Paris. Napoleon's first attempts to prevent these armies from united failed, but he was able to escape from the battle of La Rothiere (1 February 1814) with his army largely intact. The Allies then decided to split up and advance along two different routes towards Paris. Schwarzenberg was to stay on the Seine, pin Napoleon in place and threaten Paris from the south. Blucher was to head north towards the Marne and the rear elements of his own army and threaten Paris from the north.

This created a gap between the Allied armies. Napoleon took advantage of this gap by moving north into the middle of Blucher's scattered army. On 10 February he crushed General Olsufiev's isolated Russian corps at Champaubert. On the same day Blucher was a few miles to the east, heading south in an attempt to envelop Napoleon. Further west his leading troops, under Sacken and Yorck, were on the Marne, with Yorck around Chateau-Thierry and Sacken close to Meaux. Late on 10 February Blucher learnt of Olsufiev's defeat. He retreated north towards Verrus. Sacken and Yorck were ordered to unite at Montmirail and fight their way past Napoleon to join up with Blucher's main army.

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

On 11 February Napoleon led his main army west to deal with Sacken and Yorck, while Macdonald was ordered to advance along the Marne and retake Chateau-Thierry. Napoleon hoped to defeat Sacken and Yorck south of the Marne and then trap them against the river. Napoleon won an hard fought battle at Montmirial, defeating a series of attempts by Sacken to break through to the east. Yorck played a minor part in the battle, and at the end of the day both Allied corps were retreating north towards Chateau-Thierry.

Unfortunately for Napoleon, Macdonald hadn't made much progress towards Chateau-Thierry. The defeated Allies were thus able to get most of their men across the river without any real interference from the French.

At the start of 12 February the Prussians were in place at Montfaucon, about seven miles south of Chateau-Thierry (and about half way between there and Montmirial). The Prussians posted their advance guard around Montfaucon, with the 1st and 7th Prussian Brigade and General Jurgass's Reserve Cavalry just to the north. Sacken also placed a brigade on the left bank of the Meuse, made up of the Tambov and Kostroma Regiments (General Heidenreich).

Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt
Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt

The French advanced north along several parallel routes, including the road through Fontenelles and a parallel road to the west that passed through Rozoy. Napoleon took four battalions of Old Guard Grenadiers from the 1st Old Guard Division, the 2nd Old Guard Division, the 1st Voltigeur Division and part of the Guard cavalry north, leaving other parts of his army to watch Blucher or rest.

The Prussians were defending a series of hills divided by streams that ran west towards the Meuse. The first fighting took place on the Caquerets hill, just north of Montfaucon, but the Prussians were soon forced back to the next line of hills, protected by a stream. The main weakness in this line was towards its eastern end, where the French were able to capture a bridge that led to Petite-Noue (probably just to the east of the modern main road through Viffort). This allowed the French cavalry to break several infantry squares before Allied cavalry arrived to restore the situation. A major cavalry fight then broke out east of the main road, which ended with a French victory. The two Prussian brigade reteated north to join the Russians around La Trinit farm.

The fighting then moved nearer to Chateau-Thierry, with the French reaching Nogentel and Nesles, only just over a mile to the south. French cavalry inflicted heavy losses on the retreating Prussians, but the French were then held up Major Stockhausen with two East Prussian regiments at the edge of the suburbs. Stockhausen's rearguard action allowed most of the Allied troops to reach safety on the north bank of the Marne, but the bridge was blown behind him, forcing his 400 men to surrender.

The destruction of the bridge effectively ended the battle. Allied artillery on the north bank kept the French at a distance as the rest of the Allied army continued its retreat. Macdonald's failure to capture the bridge had greatly reduced the impact of Napoleon's series of victories, but even so the Prussians had lost around 1,250 men and the Russians around 1,500 men during the battle. The French lost around 500 men.

In the aftermath of the battle the Allies continued to retreat north, reaching Oulchy-la-Ville by the end of the day. It took the French twenty-four hours to get a bridge across the Marne, and Mortier was then sent to press the retreating Allies as they moved north towards Soissons. Napoleon led the rest of his field army back to Montmirial, ready to move south to deal with the threat from Schwarzenberg on the Seine. On the way he was given one more chance to inflict a defeat on Blucher, when the Army of Silesia attempted to block his route south, leading to the battle of Vauchamps (14 February 1814).  

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (13 April 2016), Battle of Chateau-Thierry, 12 February 1814 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_chateau_thierry1814.html

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