Battle of Montereau, 18 February 1814

The battle of Montereau (18 February 1814) was Napoleon's last significant  victory over General Schwarzenberg's Army of Bohemia during the campaign of 1814, and forced Schwarzenberg to retreat east from the vicinity of Paris back towards Troyes.

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

At the start of the campaign two Allied armies advanced into France. On the Allied right was Marshal Blucher's Army of Silesia, while on the left was General Schwarzenberg's Army of Bohemia. Napoleon's early attempts to prevent the two armies failed at Brienne (29 January 1814), and he was then almost caught by the combined armies at La Rothiere (1 February 1814). However after these early successes the Allies decided to split up, with Schwarzenberg given the task of pinning Napoleon on the Seine while Blucher moved north and then advanced down the Marne towards Paris. This allowed a gap to develop between the two armies, made worse when Schwarzenberg was tricked into retreating by a French reconnaissance in force.

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

This gave Napoleon the chance to rush north and deal with Blucher. Marshal Victor was left on the Seine to watch Schwarzenberg and defend a series of key river bridges. Napoleon led the core of his army north, and defeated Blucher's men in a series of encounters that became known as the Six Days Campaign. On 10 February he defeated an isolated Russian corps at Champaubert. On the following day he prevented Blucher's most advanced troops, under Sacken-Osten and Yorck, fighting their way back to Blucher (battle of Montmirail). Napoleon had hoped to pin the defeated Allies against the Marne, but Marshal Macdonald had failed to capture the river bridges. As a result the battle of Chateau-Thierry (12 February 1814) was a rear guard action. By this point Victor was in trouble on the Seine, and Napoleon had to abandon his pursuit of Blucher and turn back south to deal with Schwarzenberg. Blucher attempted to block his route, but suffered another defeat at Vauchamps (14 February 1814).

In the aftermath of this defeat Blucher decided to retreat east to Chalons-sur-Marne, where he could join up with reinforcements. This gave Napoleon the time he needed to turn back and hit Schwarzenberg on the Seine. Napoleon had already sent Macdonald and Kellermann south to support Victor and Oudinot on 13 February, and on 14 February they reached Guignes on the Yerres (a tributory of the Seine). On the same day Marmont was left to pursue Blucher, while Napoleon led Grouchy's cavalry and the Imperial Guard south.

On 15 February Schwarzenberg stopped his advance, worried that Napoleon was probably heading his way. On the same day Napoleon left Montmirail at the start of an impressive forced march. Marmont and Mortier were left to defend the Marne (where they would soon be caught up in the final victorious Allied advance on Paris).

Napoleon reached Guignes at 3pm on 16 February. Reports had Schwarzenberg's army split into three main bodies. Wittgenstein was said to be advancing from Nogent, and was thus furthest from Paris. Wrede was further west, coming from Bray on the Seinne. Finally Wurttenburg and Bianchi were at Montereau, furthest to the west and almost at Fontainebleau. Their most advanced columns were approaching the Yerres.

On 17 February Wrede and Wittgenstein were ordered to retreat by slow stages through Bray and Nogent, while Barclay de Tolly and the reserve collected at Nogent. On the same day Napoleon began his new offensive. Gerard and Grouchy destroyed Pahlen's cavalry at Mormont, before they could begin to retreat south-east towards Nangis and then Bray. They then moved south and defeated Wrede's advance guard at Valjouen and forced them to retreat south to the Seine.

In the aftermath of these two victories the French split up. Oudinot was sent towards Nogent and Provins, on the French left. Macdonald was given command of the pursuit of Wrede. Victor, Gerard and the Guard were given the task of seizing Montereau. They were joined by the experienced cavalry commander Pajol on the way.

Victor was the main disappointment of 17 February. He failed to take part in the fighting against Wrede at Valjouen, and then ignored orders to march through the night to reach Montereau. As a result Wurttemberg was able to take up a fortified position north of the Seine covering the town.

Napoleon was furious with Victor's performance, and removed him from command of his corps. Victor refused to leave the army, and was rewarded for his late-found determination with a command in the Imperial Guard. General Gerard was given commander of Victor's corps, although the news didn't arrive until after the battle had begun.

Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt
Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt

In 1814 Montereau sat on the south bank of the Seine, at the point where the Yonne flowed in from the south. The main town was west of the Yonne, but there were suburbs on the eastern bank of the Yonne and the north bank of the Seine. Bridges crossed both rivers at their junction, with one linking the main town to the Yonne suburb and the second linking the two suburbs. The south bank was fairly level, but on the northern bank steep slopes overlooked the river, leading to the heights of Surville, above the Saint-Nicolas suburb (which then lined the river). The heights dominated both of the bridges, but they weren't of much defensive value against an attacker coming from the north.

The Crown Prince of Wurttemberg decided to defend a line that ran across the Surville plateau, with strong points in the villages of Villaron and Saint-Martin (now swallowed up by Montereau). He had 20,000 infantry and 1,900 cavalry, but was fighting with his back to a river with only one escape route.

The French arrived on the battlefield piecemeal. Huguet-Chataux arrived first, and launched an attack early in the morning. He managed to capture Villaron, on the Allied left, and held the town for half an hour before being forced to retreat.

Duhesme arrived next, and decided to attack on the French right. He left one of his brigades in reserve, but added one of Huguet-Chataux's brigades to the attacking force. His aim was to reach the road to Paris, and then advance east towards the river bridge. Duhesme's attack on Villaron was repulsed, and his troops ended up in the low ground east of Saint Martin, but Huguet-Chataux managed to get into the north-western suburbs before he was mortally wounded. After that his brigade withdrew. 

Gerard reached the battlefield at around 1pm, at about the same time as discovered that he had been placed in command of II Corps. Duhesme was pulled back from the low ground, and then concentrated his artillery. This allowed him to gain artillery superiority. It also convinced Wurttemburg that the French were retreating, as the French infantry was now largely hidden. He ordered General Doring to launch a counterattack, but the French counterattacked in turn and drove back the Allies.

At about 2pm Napoleon arrived and took command. He ordered a fresh assault, and this convinced Wurttemburg to order a slow retreat across the single river bridge. The retreat soon descended into chaos, with the bridge under artillery fire and the French cavalry even reaching the bridges. The Allies came under attack from the citizens of Montereau, and were unable to destroy the bridges before Pajol's cavalry could capture them intact.

The Allies suffered very heavy losses in this battle. The Wurttemberg corps probably lost 4,000 men, while Schaffer's Austrian Brigade of around 2,500 men appears to have totally destroyed – mainly captured after its escape route was blocked. On the French side losses were higher than in recent battles, around 2,500. The battle had lasted all day, and the French army included a number of new recruits, so this figure might have included quite a high number of deserters.

Although Napoleon had achieved a great deal on 17-18 February, most of Schwarzenberg's men had escaped east, and were now on the south bank of the Seine. They had also been able to destroy the bridges east of Montereau, and so Napoleon was unable to carry out a rapid pursuit.

This was the high point of Napoleon's success. After this his blows didn't quite have the same impact. After failing to catch Schwarzenberg he turned north to deal with Blucher once again. A narrow victory at Craonne (7 March) was followed by defeat at Laon (8-9 March 1814). After retreating from Laon Napoleon recaptured Rheims in a night attack (13 March 1814), briefly causing confusion in the Allied high command. He then made a crucial mistake. He decided to try and hit Schwarzenberg once again, to force him into a retreat, and then move further east to get into the Allied rear areas. At Arcis-sur-Aube (20-21 March 1814) he unexpectedly ran into Schwarzenberg's main army, and was lucky to escape without suffering a major defeat. He then moved away to the north-east, but for once the Allied decided to ignore Napoleon's movements, and instead Schwarzenberg joined up with Blucher for the final advance on Paris. Napoleon was thus absent when his capital fell to the Allies, and soon afterwards was forced to abdicate for the first time.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (2 May 2016), Battle of Montereau, 18 February 1814 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_montereau.html

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