Battle of Craonne, 7 March 1814

The battle of Craonne (7 March 1814) was a rare example of a battle where both commanders misjudged the situation and was unsatisfactory for both the French and the Allies, although counts as a narrow French victory .

The fighting at Craonne was the start of Napoleon's last attempt to defeat Blucher during the 1814 campaign. At the start of the campaign he had failed to stop the Allies from joining up, but had escaped with most of his army intact from the resulting battle of La Rothiere (1 February 1814). The Allies then decided to advance along different routes towards Paris, with Schwarzenberg advancing down the Seine and Blucher down the Marne. This opened up a gap between the two Allied armies and allowing Napoleon to inflict a series of defeats on Blucher at Champaubert (10 February), Montmirail (11 February), Chateau-Thierry (12 February) and Vauchamps (14 February) (The Six Days Campaign).

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

Napoleon's problem throughout the 1814 campaign was that although he could win victories with his main army, his subordinates rarely fared as well. While Napoleon was defeating Blucher around the Marne, Victor was unable to defend his positions on the Seine, and Schwarzenberg began to threaten Paris. Napoleon had to dash south, and was able to inflict defeats on Schwarzenberg at Mormont (17 February 1814), Valjouen (17 February 1814) and Montereau (18 February 1814). After the last of those battles Schwarzenberg's men escaped to the south bank of the Seine. On 19 February French troops on the north bank reached Nogent and Bray but found the bridges had already been destroyed. Schwarzenberg ordered a retreat to Mery-sur-Seine, and ordered marshal Blucher to move south to join him. Napoleon decided to lead his army to Troyes, to the south-east of Schwarzenberg, but his advance was slowed down by the need to use the single bridge at Montereau.

Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt
Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt

On 21 February Schwarzenberg and Blucher met up at Mery, and on the following day there was a full scale Allied council of war. Schwarzenberg wanted to retreat further, and was given permission to pull back to to Bar-sur-Aube. Blucher was sent back to the Marne, furious that he had been called south for a battle that was then cancelled. In compensation he was given command of Winzingerode's and Bulow's units from the Army of the North, which had been operating in the Low Countries.

Schwarzenberg's retreat denied Napoleon the battle he had been expecting on 23 February. Blucher was also denied on 24 February when Marmont retreated instead of risking a battle against overwhelming odds near Sezanne. By 25 February Schwarzenberg was on the upper reaches of the Aube, with permission to retreat south-east to Langres on the upper Marne. Napoleon was at Vandeuvre and Bar-sur-Seine

By 26 February Blucher was at La-Ferte-Gaucher on the Grand Morin river (a tributary of the Marne), and was advancing down the river towards Meaux. Schwarzenberg had only been allowed to retreat if he agreed to resume his advance if Blucher made progress, and this news thus forced Schwarzenberg to advance towards Bar-sur-Aube.

On 27 February news of Blucher's advance reached Napoleon. He had to abandon his attack on Schwarzenberg, and turned back north once again to deal with Blucher. He decided to try and trap Blucher between Marmont and Mortier on the Marne and his own army. On 27 February Napoleon's army moved north through Arcis-Sur-Aube and on to Sommesous.

Freidrich Wilhelm Graf Bülow von Dennewitz
Freidrich Wilhelm
Graf Bülow
von Dennewitz

At the start of 1 March Blucher was trying to catch Marmont and Mortier around Meaux on the Marne, but he then discovered that the French had reached Sezanne, near the head of the Grand Morin, and were thus threatening his rear. He abandoned his attack on Meaux, and ordered his troops to cross to the north bank of the Marne. Once across the river he decided to link up with his new subordinates, Winzingerode and Bulow, but he had no news of their location, and so decided to head for Laon, north of the Aisne. At this point Winzingerode and Bulow were actually attacking Soissons on the Aisne, so Blucher was heading in the right general direction. While Blucher was on the move, Napoleon was stuck at the Marne waiting for bridges to be repaired. Once he did get across the river, Napoleon's aim was to catch Blucher before he could cross the Aisne and join up with his reinforcements.

Napoleon's plan was quickly undermined. On 3 March Winzingerode and Bulow captured Soissons, with its bridge intact. On 4 March Napoleon reached Fismes, east of Soissons on the Veste, a tributory of the Aisne. There he discovered that Soissons had fallen and that Marmont and Mortier were inactive, awaiting formal orders. On the same day Blucher began to cross the Aisne, and by 5 March he was across the river. Blucher had joined up with his reinforcements, and was now united and much stronger than Napoleon, but the Emperor decided to attack anyway. On 5 March he moved north, and cross the Aisne at Berry-au-Bac. Marmont and Mortier were to move east up the Marne, mask Soissons and cross at Berry, then join Napoleon at Laon. At this point Napoleon assumed that Blucher was retreating back towards his bases, and the only troops still in the area would be his rearguards.

On 6 March Napoleon moved north-west towards Craonne, unaware that he was marching into Blucher's trap. Although Blucher overestimated the size of Napoleon's army, he was still willing to stand and fight. He hoped to trick Napoleon into attacking him in a strong position on the plateau west of Craonne. Part of his army, under Voronzov, was to defend the plateau, while 11,000 cavalry under Winzingerode, supported by Kliest's infantry carried out an outflanking march to hit the French right. The Allied position was based around the farm of Heurtebrise, at a narrow point on the plateau.

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

Napoleon's plan was for a double envelopment. Mortier in the centre would pin the Russians in place, while Ney attacked on the right and Nansouty on the left. The battle was to begin with an artillery bombardment, but Ney wasn't to begin his advance for two hours after the artillery opened fire in order to give Victor and Mortier time to reach the battlefield.

The timing of the French attack went wrong. Ney began his attack as soon as the artillery bombardment began, and was thus without part of his force. His attack was repulsed with heavy losses. Napoleon was forced to throw fresh troops into action as they arrived, but despite his best efforts the French were unable to make any real progress.

Things were going no better for the Allies. Winzingerode hadn't made as much progress as required. Blucher briefly planned to lead them in a cavalry attack himself, but then realised that he couldn't reach the battlefield in time to make a real difference, and decided to order a retreat in order to prevent Voronzov and Sacken from being cut off by the French. Sacken sent his cavalry east to support Voronzov, and then moved north towards Laon. Voronzov withdrew in squares. The French continued to attack for some time, but eventually the Russians were able to reach safely on the north bank of a nearby river.

The battle of Craonne was technically a French victory, as they held the battlefield at the end of the day, but they had suffered heavier losses than the Russians. The French lost somewhere between 5,500 and 8,000 men in the fighting, and amongst the wounded were Marshal Victor and General Grouchy. The Russians lost around 4,500-5,000 men, and were able to rejoin the main army.

In the aftermath of this battle Blucher united his forces around Laon, where he planned to fight a defensive battle. Napoleon still believed he was only facing Blucher's rearguard, and despite the costly battle at Craonne decided to attack once again. Marmont was ordered to come up on the French right to support this attack. The resulting battle of Laon (9-10 March 1814) was a clear-cut French defeat, and forced Napoleon to retreat back to the south of the Aisne.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (16 May 2016), Battle of Craonne, 7 March 1814 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_craonne.html

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