Battle of Montmartre or Paris, 30 March 1814

The battle of Montmartre or Paris (30 March 1814) was the last battle of the 1814 Allied invasion of north-eastern France. Although the French defenders of Paris managed to hold off the first Allied attack on the city, it was clear that they couldn't hope to hold out much longer, and early on 31 March an armistice came into effect and Allied troops entered the French capital.

Earlier in the campaign Napoleon had won an impressive series of victories, but after defeat at Laon (9-10 March 1814) he decided to move into the enemy's rear areas in an attempt to force them to retreat away from Paris. On his way he attempted to inflict a defeat on Schwarzenberg's rearguard at Arcis-sur-Aube (20-21 March 1814), but discovered that he faced Schwarzenberg's entire army. Only Schwarzenberg's unwillingness to attack on 21 March saved the French from a major defeat.

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

In the aftermath of this battle Napoleon decided to continue with his plan, and moved east to St. Dizier on the Marne. Unfortunately for him, the Allies captured a letter from Napoleon to the Empresses explaining his plans, and decided to ignore this move. Schwarzenberg decided to move north to join up with Blucher, and the combined armies would then march on Paris.

Napoleon had placed his brother King Joseph in command in Paris, and given Marshals Marmont and Mortier the task of watching Schwarzenberg and Blucher, although he didn't believe the Allies would risk an advance. On 25 March Marmont and Mortier suffered a heavy defeat at La-Fere-Champenoise, and had to retreat to Meaux and then Paris. Although many of Napoleon's battles in 1814 had been nearer to Paris, he was now out of the picture at St. Dizier, and was unable to play any part in the defense of his capital.

The fortifications of Paris were in a poor condition. Napoleon had been wary of ordering work on them too soon, in case it caused panic in Paris, and when he did finally order work to begin it was too late. King Joseph lacked the confidence to order work on his own authority, and by the time he did issue the orders in late March it was too late – the Allies were at the gates (or would have been if Paris had any proper gates).

Paris in 1814 was a vastly smaller city that today, with the urban area largely confined to the modern city centre (roughly the equivalent of the first 12 arrondissements). The forests of Vincennes and the Bois de Boulogne were both outside the city, as was Montmartre, then just outside the northern edge of the city. Much of the fighting on 30 March took place in and around the small villages scattered just outside Paris, in the area between the Seine and the Marne (although the junction of those rivers was then some way to the south of Paris).

Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt
Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt

Marmont and Mortier had been given nearly 20,000 men to watch Blucher, but they lost half of this force at La-Fere-Champenoise (25 March 1814). More men were lost in a series of minor clashes during the retreat. At Paris they found the Paris National Guard under Marshal Moncey. In theory this force should have contained 30,000 men and an artillery corps, but at the end of March there were only 12,000 men in total and of them only 6,000-7,000 had guns. Paris contained the depots of a large number of Line and Guard battalions, and in theory these could have provided a core of experienced men. However attempts to form units from the Line depots were left too late. The Young Guard depots had contained 3,600 infantry, 1,500 cavalry and 150 artillery soldiers on 28 March, but 1,500 infantry and 700 cavalry were sent to Meaux on that day and 1,500 infantry and 300 cavalry formed the escort of Napoleon's wife and son when they left Paris on 29 March. Only 600 infantry and 300 cavalry from the original force remained for the battle, supported by 4,000 raw recruits who were formed into a division under General Michel.

Eventually the French managed to gather 25,000 men for the defence of Paris, just under 20,000 infantry and 5,500 cavalry. Marshal Marmont was given command on the French left, running west from the Ourcq Canal. His area thus included the hill of Montmartre, where Joseph placed his own HQ. Marshal Mortier commanded on the right, which ran south-east from the canal to Belleville and Romainville. The National Guard was used to man the outdated city walls, but little was expected of them.

The Allies were much stronger. They had nearly 120,000 infantry and 26,500 cavalry available, split into three columns. Marshal Blucher was posted on the right, with his own Army of Silesia. Barclay de Tolly, command of the Russian reserve, was given command of the centre. The Crown Prince of Wurttemberg commanded on the Allied left. The Allies arrived outside Paris on 29 March, and their main concern was to take the city before Napoleon or any of the reinforcements he was rushing towards the city could arrive.

The Allies planned to capture the heights of Montmartre and Belleville. Blucher, on the right, was given the task of taking Montmartre. Barclay de Tolly in the centre was sent against Belleville. Wurttemberg was given the task of clearing Vincennes and supporting the attack on Belleville.

The Allied attack began with an assault on Pantin in the centre. This expanded into wider fighting in the Pantin and Romainville areas, but the Allies made little progress. By 11am their first attacks had been repulsed, but the French were almost completely committed to the fight, and Blucher had yet to make much of a contribution, having had to cross the Ourcq canal and move into place before he could attack.

On the Allied left the Crown Prince of Wurttemberg began his attacks around 11am, and made steady progress. He captured the Seine bridge at Charenton, then pressed on towards the walls of Paris.

Barcley de Tolly began a fresh assault at around 1pm, once Blucher was deployed to his right. Once again the French were badly outnumbered, but fought with great determination. Marmont had a horse shot under him, but he was unable to stop the Allies and had to reform on a new line just to the east of Belleville. The Allies continued to press, and Marmont was unable to hold this line. The French were forced out of Menilmontant and off Mont-Louis, placing the Allies south of Belleville and close to the city walls. They were able to place howitzers on these hills and could bombard Paris.

Marmont was now surrounded on three sides, and believed that the battle was lost. He sent one of his aide-de-camps to Schwarzenberg to begin armistice negotiations. King Joseph had left at noon, after Blucher got into place, and had given Mortier and Marmont the authority to surrender Paris instead of risking a battle in the city. The French were now in trouble all around their lines. In the north Aubervilliers and Saint-Denis had both fallen, while Mortier was forced to abandon Villette, on the north-eastern edge of the city. Before sending his message to Schwarzenberg, Marmont had tried to consult with Mortier, but his fellow Marshal didn't receive his modified orders from Joseph until 5pm. Mortier did receive a message from Napoleon in which he was instructed to try and save Paris from occuption, but not to try and fight in the city, and thus sent his own messenger to Schwarzenberg.

By early evening the diplomatic dance came to an end. Schwarzenberg offered Marmont terms – both Marshals had to withdraw to the city walls and the fighting would end while negotiations were under way. Marmont decided to accept these terms, but it took some time for this news to reach Mortier. In the meantime the Tsar had sent a messenger to Mortier asking him to surrender, and Mortier had defiantly refused. News then reached him of Marmont's armistice, and he was forced to join the peace talks.

The last fighting took place around Montmartre, on the northern flank of the battle. This had been King Joseph's headquarters until noon, and hadn't been caught up in the early fighting. Eventually the area was attacked by roaming Allied cavalry, opposed largely by Marshal Moncey's National Guard. The hill fell to a Russian attack after the armistice had been agreed.

Once the fighting was over, detailed surrender talks began. The surrender agreement was signed at 2am on 31 March. The French army was allowed to withdraw by Paris, and had to be out by 6am, when the Allies would enter the city. The ceasefire would last until 9am, giving the French time to move away from Paris.

The Allies marched into Paris to a surprisingly enthusiastic welcome. The victory parade included Tsar Alexander of Russia, Frederick William III King of Prussia, and a impressive selection of Allied generals. Some of the crowds were probably genuine Royalists, but others were simply pleased that the fighting was over and Paris hadn't been subjected to a siege.

The defeated troops soon joined up with Napoloen at Fontainebleau, where the Emperor briefly attempted to continue the fight. Napoleon had realised he was in trouble after his easy victory at St.Dizier on 26 March, and on the following day he began to rush his army west. The French were held up by the defenders of Vitry,   and Napoleon was forced to take a longer route to Paris, via Bar-sur-Aube and Troyes. On 28 March the army moved on Troyes. On 29 March Napoleon decided to take the cavalry ahead, and headed for Vandoeuvres. During the day news reached him that the combined Allied armies were almost at Paris, and he left most of his cavalry behind to gain speed. On 30 March he passed through Troyes and reached Villeneauve-la-Guyard. Finally, on 31 March he passed through Fontainbleau, only to run into a messenger coming from Paris with news of the capitulation. Napoleon was a day too late to even attempt to save his capital.

The fall of Paris didn't quite end the campaign. Napoleon had the defenders of Paris around him by the end of 31 March, and by 3 April the main field army had caught up with the Emperor. Plans were put in place for a campaign around Paris, and on the same day Napoleon conducted a review of the Imperial Guard. Schwarzenberg was worried by this French concentration, but the Allies even issued orders for a retreat to Meaux. The situation was changed by the success of Allied negotiations with Marmont, who decided to side with the newly formed pro-Bourbon provisional government in Paris. Marmont managed to take his corps with him, and marched to Versailles. Before this news became public, Napoleon's other marshals had confronted the Emperor and finally made him realise that his cause was lost. At first Napoleon attempted to abdicate in favour of his son, but after Marmont changed sides even this prospect was lost, and Napoleon finally abdicated unconditionally.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (5 July 2016), Battle of Montmartre or Paris, 30 March 1814 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_montmartre.html

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