Battle of Montmirail, 11 February 1814

The battle of Montmirail (11 February 1814) was the second of Napoleon's victories during the Six Days Campaign, and saw him prevent the westernmost part of Marshal Blucher's fighting its way east to rejoin the main army. Instead the defeated Allies were forced to retreat north towards Chateau-Thierry and safety on the north bank of the Marne.

The first part of the 1814 campaign saw Napoleon fail to prevent the Allies from joining up on the Aube, but he was able to escape from the battle of La Rothiere (1 February 2016) with his army largely intact. The French retreated west to Nogent on the Seine and waited for another chance. The Allies promptly gave him that chance by deciding to advance towards Paris on two different lines. Schwarzenberg's Army of Bohemia was to pin Napoleon down on the Seine, and possibly advance down the river, while Blucher was to unite his army on the Marne and threaten Paris from that direction.

This created a gap between the two Allied armies, which only got larger when Schwarzenberg was tricked into a two day retreat back towards Bar-sur-Aube (6-8 February).

Napoleon was aware that he had a chance to hit Blucher, but his first task was to try and discover exactly where the Army of Silesia was heading. At first he assumed that Blucher was heading for Nogent on the Seine, but late on 5 February he discovered that he was heading for Chateau-Thierry and the Marne route to Paris. Napoleon arrived at Nogent late on 6 February, and spent the next few days searching for the Prussians. Early on 9 February he received the news he needed – Marmont had reached Champaubert, north-east of Nogent, and reported that 15,000 Allied troops were at Montmirail, 15 miles to his west. Other Allied forces had already been located some way to the east of Montmirail, around Epernay on the Marne. Blucher's army was actually split into four main bodies at this stage, each of which was vulnerable to attack.

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

While Napoleon was preparing to move north, Schwarzenberg was preparing for a battle around Nogent. He asked Blucher to send troops south to hit the northern flank of the French on the Seine. On 9 February Blucher ordered a large scale movement south, to start on the following morning. Later on the same day he discovered that Napoleon was already at Sezanne. Instead of taking measures to unite his scattered army, Blucher decided to try and surround Napoleon. Sacken was given the task of pursuing Macdonald's corps, which had been retreating down the Marne. Yorck was to go to Montmirail to replace Sacken. Blucher himself would take Kleist and Kapzevitsch south to La-Fere-Champenoise, which would put him on Napoleon's right flank, and then turn west to get behind the advancing French.

Blucher based his plans on the assumption that Napoleon was already beaten. He quickly proved that this wasn't true. On 10 February he destroyed General Olsufiev's isolated division at Champaubert, placing him in the middle of Blucher's army. Late on the day this news reached Blucher, and he retreated north to Vertus. Yorck and Sacken were ordered to concentrate at Montmirail and fight their way east to Blucher.

Napoleon decided to focus on the troops to his west. Marmont was left to watch Blucher, while Macdonald was ordered to advance up the Marne to Chateau-Thierry and capture the key bridge over the Marne. On the night of 10-11th Napoleon moved west towards Montmirail, over very muddy roads that greatly slowed down his progress, and reduced the number of troops available to him at the start of the battle.

By 10 February Sacken had reached Trilport, on the Marne just to the east of Meaux. Yorck had left a small force in Chateau-Thierry, and was now camped on the south bank of the Marne. Although Yorck was closer to Montmirail than Sacken, his orders arrived late and he arrived second on the battlefield.

On 11 February there were thus three forces heading for Montmirail. Sacken was heading there from the west, having ignored suggestions that he should head towards Yorck at Chateau-Thierry instead (in his defence this would have taken him along worse roads). Yorck was heading south along a good road from Chateau-Thierry. Finally Napoleon was approaching from the east. All three forces were struggling on very muddy roads, but Napoleon's men were also exhausted and inexperienced.

The battle took place to the north of the Petit Moran river. Montmirail was at the rear of the battlefield, quite close to the river. The road ran north-west out of the town and then split, with the left-hand branch heading west parallel to the river and the right-hand branch heading north-west towards Chateau-Thierry.

Sacken had two infantry corps and one cavalry corps under his command – General Vassil'shikov's Cavalry Corps, General Por Tallisin II's 6th Infantry Corps and General von Lieven III's 11th Infantry Corps, a total of around 14,000 men.

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

On the French side Ney's Young Guard led the way, reinforced by Ricard's 1st Division, VI Corps. Mortier with the Old Guard was following some way behind. Around 27,000 men were available in total, although it took some time for them all to arrive.

Early on 11 February Sacken's leading troops were approaching La Renaudiere, about five miles to the west of Montmirail. The French were struggling to move west along the muddy roads, but Nansouty's cavalry had already arrived and was attempting to hold up the Allied advance. Napoleon deployed Ricard's division just to the south of the main road running west from Montmirail, behind the village of Marchais. Ney's two Guard divisions were posted to his right-rear, with Friant's 1st Old Guard Division in reserve. Nansouty's cavalry was posted on the French right. Mortier's Old Guard divisions were approaching from the east.

Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt
Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt

At the start of the battle Sacken decided to attack south of the main road and try and drive his way past the French. He used part of Tallisin's corps for his initial attack, sending a detachment under General Heidenreich to attack the village. Friant's division was committed to stop this attack, while General Michel was summoned from Montmirail. A French counterattack broke the left of the Russian front line, and forced Sacken to commit his reserves. He also ordered his cavalry to move north to make contact with Yorck's Prussians, coming from the north. A French cavalry attack had some success on the road west, but a Russian counterattack restored the position.

At about 3pm the first of Yorck's troops – Pirch's 1st Brigade and Horn's 7th Brigade – were approaching the battlefield from the north, and had reached Fontenelles. There was still fierce fighting around Marchais, and the French position was under heavy pressure. Napoleon had to sent Marshal Lefebvre with two battalions of chasseurs and the remains of Ricard's division to retake Marchais, while General Michel was sent north to stop the Prussians.

The French were successful on both flanks. The Prussian attack was repulsed after some heavy fighting around the village of Bailly, east of the road from Chateau-Thierry. At about 5pm the Russians gave up the attack, and ordered a retreat from Marchais. Sacken sent his cavalry north to join Yorck, and then moved cross-country to the road to Chateau-Thierry.

By the end of the battle the French had lost around 2,000 men, the Allies probably around 3,000 casualties and 700 prisoners. All sources agree that the Russians suffered most of the Allied casualties.

Although Napoleon had succeeded in preventing Sacken and Yorck breaking through to join Blucher, Marshal Macdonald had failed to capture Chateau-Thierry. Sacken and Yorck were able to cross the Marne with most of their corps intact, although the French did catch up with their rearguard, winning another victory on the following day (battle of Chateau-Thierry, 12 February 1814).

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (1 April 2016), Battle of Montmirail, 11 February 1814 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_montmirail.html

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