Battle of Laon, 8-9 March 1814

The battle of Laon (8-9 March 1814) was a French defeat that ended Napoleon's hope of defeating Blucher for a second time during the campaign of 1814 and forced him to retreat into a position between the two main Allied armies.

At the start of the campaign Napoleon had failed to prevent Schwarzenberg and Blucher uniting large parts of their armies on the Aue and Seine, but he had managed to escape with most of his army intact at the battle of La Rothiere (1 February 1814). The Allies had then split up and taken different routes towards Paris, allowing Napoleon to concentrate against Blucher and win a series of defeats over him in the Six Days Campaign (Champaubert (10 February), Montmirail (11 February), Chateau-Thierry (12 February) and Vauchamps (14 February) ). He then turned south and defeated Schwarzenberg at Mormant (17 February 1814), Valjouen (17 February 1814) and Montereau (18 February 1814), but an attempt to catch Schwarzenberg again near the Aube failed.

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

Napoleon then learnt that Blucher was threatening Meaux on the Meuse and thus Paris. He decided to head north to deal with this, but suffered a series of setbacks in his attempts to catch Blucher south of the Marne and then the Aisne. On 3 March Winzingerode and Bulow, recently attached to Blucher's command from the Army of the North, captured Soissons on the Aisne, giving Blucher a route across that river. On 4 March Napoleon reached Fismes, east of Soissons on the Veste, a tributory of the Aisne, where he learnt that Soissons had fallen, and that Marmont and Mortier had remained inactive off to the west waiting for official orders to move.

On 5 March Blucher crossed the Aisne and joined up with his reinforcements. Although he had missed his chance to catch Blucher while he was still relatively weak, Napoleon decided to attack anyway. He crossed the Aisne at Berry-au-Bac, east of Blucher's crossing point at Soissons, and ordered Mortier and Marmont to advance east up the Aisne to Soissons, with orders to mask the Prussian garrison there, cross the river at Berry and join Napoleon at Laon. At this stage Napoleon believed that Blucher was in full retreat to the north, and only expected to have to face his rearguards.

Portrait of Marshal Michel Ney (1769-1815)
Portrait of
Marshal Michel Ney
(1769-1815)
Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt
Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt

Both commanders now misjudged the situation. Blucher believed that Napoleon had around 90,000 men in total, but was still willing to try and trap him at Craonne, north-west of Berry. On 6 March he posted part of his army on the plateau west of Craonne, with other forces placed to hit the French right flank once they were engaged on the plateau. Napoleon spoilt this plan slightly by getting troops on the plateau late on 6 March, but on the following day he ordered Ney to attack, believing that he only faced a rearguard. The resulting battle of Craonne (7 March 1814) disappointed both sides. Napoleon's double envelopment failed to materialise due to bad timing. Blucher's flanking attack also failed, and the Allies ended up retreating north towards Laon.

After the end of the fighting at Caonne Blucher ordered his troops to concentrate around the nearby town of Laon, where he planned to fight a defensive battle. At this stage Blucher assumed that Napoleon must have around 90,000 men in order to have risked the attack on Craonne, but Napoleon never had that many men on a battlefield during 1814, and at Laon had fewer than 30,000 men. On 8 March there was some limited fighting south of Laon, while Marmont cross the Aisne at Berry and advanced towards the upcoming battlefield.

Most of the fighting on the 8th took place on the road that ran south-west from Laon towards Soissons. As it ran south it passed through the villages of Chivy and Etouvelles, and then crossed a swamp on a causeway to reach Urcel. The Allies placed a jager regiment in Chivy and another in Etouvelles, protected by artillery. An initial French attack across the swamp was repulsed, but Napoleon was then informed of a back road around Etouvelles (either by an officer with local roots or a villager). A night attack led by Ney got between Chivy and Etouvelles. The garrison of Etouvelles was quickly routed, but Chivy held out for several hours and was only captured after a four hour battle.

First Day of the Battle – 9 March

Blucher's line was centred on the southern suburbs of Laon, Semilly and Ardon, where he posted Bulow's infantry. His artillery was posted in the same area, covering the roads heading towards Soissons (to the south-west) and Rheims (to the south-east). Kleist and Yorck, with more infantry, were posted to the east of the town. On the right was the Russian cavalry of General Winzingerode. In reserve, behind Blucher's centre, was the Russian infantry under Langeron and Osten-Sacken.

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

At the start of the battle the Allies had around 100,000 men around Laon. Napoleon had around 40,000 under his direct command, with another 14,000 under Marmont somewhere to the east, close enough to take part in the battle, but not near enough to communicate with the main French army.

Both commanders misjudged the situation at the start of 9 March. Blucher believed that he faced a much larger French army, while Napoleon was sure that he only faced the Allied rearguard, and that Laon could fall to a coup de main. As a result he ordered Ney to let the cavalry past, with the intention of using the cavalry to made a demonstration to the north of the city while Ney rushed it from the south. At this point the Allied army was hidden by mist and fog.

The cavalry advance was quickly repulsed, when the French horse came under heavy artillery fire from the southern suburb of Semilly. The early infantry advance also reached Semilly, where heavy fighting broke out.  The French also managed to reach Ardon, on the eastern side of Laon, where they captured the village but came under heavy fire.

The fog lifted at around 11.00am, giving both commanders a better view of the battlefield. At first Blucher didn't believe what he was seeing. On the previous day a spy had told him that Napoleon had 90,000 men, so the small army visible south of Laon might just have been a trap, designed to pull the Allies out of their strong defensive positions. This theory was reinforced at about noon when news arrived from Blucher's son Oberst von Blucher, that more French troops were approaching Festieux, off to the east of Laon. This was the head of Marmont's column, but even if both French forces had managed to unite they would still have been outnumbered by two-to-one.

For much of the day there was hard fighting around Semilly and Ardon, with both places changing hands more than once. Napoleon didn't reach the battlefield in person until 1pm, and quickly realised that he was facing Blucher's entire army. Ney and Mortier were just about holding their ground, but no more, and so he summoned reinforcements to the area.

Napoleon was fortunate that Blucher didn't make more efforts against the forces south of Laon. He did order General Winzingerode to make one attack on the French left, but this was repulsed. The French pursued, but were stopped when they ran into stronger Allied forces.

Blucher decided to make his main effort against the isolated French right, under Marmont. Marmont's corps was approaching along the road from Rheims. This brought him up against the Allied left (Kliest and Yorck), but although the French were outnumbered on this flank, by 6pm they had captured the village of Athies, to the north of the road. Marmont then assumed that the fighting was over for the day. His men camped around the village, while Marmont went to a nearby château to rest.

Marmont's relaxed attitude would decide the battle. Blucher realised that the French right was dangerously isolated and outnumbered. He also believed that Napoleon would probably attempt to retreat east/ south-east towards Rheims, and so an attack on the French right could also block that route. Langeron and Sacken were ordered to support Yorck and Kleist in the attack on Marmont. Kleist was to attack Marmont's left and Yorck his right.

The attack began at about 7pm and was a total success. The French advance guards around Athies were overrun in their camps, and fled back towards the main body of VI Corps. For a moment the main body almost rallied, but it was then hit by Langeron's cavalry and Kleist's advance guard, and broke up. Kleist even managed to get some of his men across the Rheims road, blocking Marmont's path, while cavalry was sent to capture the narrow Festieux defile.

Marmont was saved from total disaster by two strokes of luck. Earlier in the day he had despatched Colonel Fabvier, with several hundred men, to try and make contact with Napoleon. When Fabvier heard the sound of fighting he turned back, and arrived in time to clear the Rheims road and then act as a rearguard while Marmont restored some order. At Festieux a group of 125 men from the Old Guard, escorting a convoy, fought off the Allied cavalry. Marmont's men were thus able to escape to Corbeny, six miles from Berry-au-Bac. Marmont had suffered a disastrous defeat, losing around 3,000-4,000 men, at least 40 guns and 100 ammunition caissons including some from the reserve artillery park.

Napoleon was now in real danger, and Blucher realised it. He issued orders for a vigerous pursuit on the following day. Yorck, Kleist and Sacken were ordered to continue down the road to Berry, pressing Marmont  and joining up with fresh troops under General St. Priest. Langeron was to advance on the Allied right and try and to cut off the French retreat.

On the French side Napoleon put in place plans for further attack on Laon, but overnight news arrived of Marmont's disaster, and he quickly realised that a new plan was needed. Even now he misjudged the situation, and assumed that Blucher would keep most of his forces in Laon and sent one or two corps at most after Marmont.

Second Day of the Battle – 10 March

The French were saved from disaster by Blucher, who fell ill. Gneisenau, who took over for the day, was too cautious to continue with the planned attack, and recalled the troops pursuing Marmont and those that already threatened the French retreat. Kleist believed that Gneisenau was hiding Blucher's death, and resigned his command (temporarily). Langeron, who was the next most senior general, refused to take command. As a result the day passed with little more than skirmishing, and overnight Napoleon was able to retreat towards Soissons.

During the two days of fighting the Allies lost 4,000 men. Napoleon's main force suffered 3,500 losses, and Marmont as many again. The battle was a clear defeat for the French, but in the aftermath they were allowed to withdraw. Blucher moved south-east towards Berry, giving Napoleon time to reorganise his damaged army.

Napoleon had one more major success to come during the 1814 campaign, the liberation of Rheims in a night attack on 13 March. He then decided to turn against Schwarzenberg, but an attempt to catch his rearguard ended in near disaster when the French ran into the main Allied army at Arcis-sur-Aube (20-21 March 1814) and were lucky to escape. Napoleon then moved east onto the Marne, hoping that his presence in the Allied rear areas would force them to retreat. Isntead they decided to ignore him. Marmont and Mortier  were defeated at La-Fere-Champenoise (25 March 1814), and forced to retreat on Paris. They managed to hold up the Allies for one day (Battle of Montmartre, 30 March 1814), but early on the next morning Paris was surrendered to the Allies. This fatally undermined Napoleon, and a few days later he abdicated for the first time.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (16 May 2016), Battle of Laon, 8-9 March 1814 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_laon.html

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