French Campaign of 1814

Introduction
Situation on the Eastern Borders of France, Late 1813
Summary
1813
1814
First Phase - St. Dizier to La Rothiere (28 January-1 February)
Second Phase - The Six Days Campaign (10-14 February)
Third Phase - Defeat of Schwarzenberg on the Seine (mid February)
Fourth Phase - Against Blucher - Craonne & Laon (7-9 March)
Fifth Phase - Against Schwarzenberg - Rheims to Arcis-sur-Aube (13-21 March)
Sixth Phase - Napoleon moves East, the Allies take Paris (22-31 March)
Conclusion

Introduction

The French campaign of 1814 saw Napoleon's last great military achievements. Although the campaign ended with an Allied victory and Napoleon's first abdication, he had managed to inflict a series of defeats on the Allied armies invading France in a campaign that recalled his great achievements in Italy at the start of his career, and demonstrated that Napoleon was still very adept at leading small armies.

At the start of 1812 Napoleon appeared to be at the height of his power. He ruled an Empire that included a greatly expanded France, large parts of Italy and Germany and even a revived Poland. The Grand Armee was seen as the most powerful military force in Europe, the victors of Austerlitz, Jena, Auerstadt, Freidland and Wagram. A series of coalitions had failed, and only Britain, Spain and Portugal were actively fighting him.

Marshal Soult
Portrait of Marshal
Jean-de-Dieu Soult

Over the next two years the French position collapsed. In 1812 Napoleon invaded Russia, but his attempts to force the Russians to accept a battle near their borders failed, and he was sucked deep into the country. The occupation of Moscow failed to force the Russians to negotiate, and the remnants of the Grand Armee were forced to retreat west. Only a tiny fraction of the original army escaped from Russia, leaving Napoleon dangerously exposed to attack. He rushed back to France, raised a fresh army just as large as the one lost in Russia, but lacking the experience. An attempt to hold the line in eastern Germany failed after Prussia joined the Sixth Coalition.

Marshal Joachim Murat
Marshal Joachim Murat

The new army was largely successful in the spring campaign in Germany in 1813, but the autumn campaign ended in defeat at Leipzig. Once again the remnants of the Grand Armee limped back into French, where Napoleon attempted to raise a second new army. By now the French were almost alone – Austria had joined the coalition for the autumn campaign, Poland was lost, and most of Napoleon's German allies had changed sides (some actually during the fighting at Leipzig). In Italy Prince Eugene de Beauharnais still held the north of the country, but Marshal Murat in Naples was also close to changing sides. In Spain the French had suffered a decisive defeat at Vitoria (21 June 1813) and been forced back to the Pyrenees. Despite the best efforts of Marshal Soult, the Allied army of the Marquess of Wellington was on French soil by the start of 1814.

Situation on the Eastern Borders of France, Late 1813

The key campaign in 1814 was fought on the eastern borders of France, and in particular in Champagne and nearby areas east of Paris. The Allies had three armies in this area, although only two of them would play a major part in the campaign.

The main Allied army was the Army of Bohemia, commanded by the Austrian Prince Schwarzenberg, a cautious commander. He had around 200,000 men at his disposal. After occupying Switzerland, his army was to move from Basel to Colmar, cross the Upper Rhine and advance to the Langres Plateau. His army would then split, with some elements moving south to join troops coming from Italy or south-west to join Wellington, while the main column moved towards Paris to attack Napoleon's right flank.,

Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt
Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt

Next in line was Marshal Blucher's Army of Silesia of 100,000 men. This was to cross the Rhine between Coblenz and Mannerheim and pin Napoleon in place.

Finally the Army of the North, under Napoleon's former Marshal Bernadotte, now the Crown Prince of Sweden, was to operate in the Low Countries. As the campaign developed, large parts of this army would be used to reinforce Blucher's Army of Silesia, much to Bernadotte's annoyance.

The French had been caught out by the rapid collapse of their position in Germany. As a result many of Napoleon's most experienced men spent the campaign of 1814 trapped in fortresses deep inside Allied territory. Amongst these forces was the garrison of Hamburg, and its able commander Marshal Davout. While these isolated garrisons did tie up a number of Allied soldiers, Napoleon would badly miss their experienced garrisons and commanders during 1814.

At the start of 1815 Napoleon thus had a very small army to defend the eastern frontiers of France. General Maison had 15,000 men in Belgium. To his right was Marshal Macdonald with 13,000 men, then General Morand with 13,000 and Marshal Marmont with 16,000. Marshal Victor, with 10,000 men and some garrisons had to defend the long stretch of border from Strasbourg to the Upper Rhine and the Swiss frontier.

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

Napoleon had very limited reserves. Mortier had the Old Guard, while Ney was forming new Young Guard divisions behind the Vosges. Marshal Augereau was meant to be raising a new army around Lyons, but although this force worried the Allied commander, it never amounted to much. Finally 30,000 National Guardsmen were forming up at Nogent and Meaux, but they had limited equipment or training.

Summary

There were several clear phases to the campaign of 1814.

The first phase saw Napoleon attempt to hit Blucher before the two allied armies could unite. The French clashed with Blucher's rearguard at St. Dizier (28 January 1814) and won a minor victory at Brienne (29 January 1814), but they failed to prevent the union of the Allied armies, and Napoleon was lucky to escape with most of his army intact after being attacked at La Rothiere (1 February 1814).

The second phase was Napoleon's most successful period of the campaign, and is known as the 'Six Days Campaign'. The Allies decided to split up and advance down the Seine and the Marne. Blucher, on the Marne front, allowed his army to get stretched out, and suffered a series of defeats at Champaubert (10 February 1814), Montmirail (11 February 1814), Chateau-Thierry (12 February 1814) and Vauchamps (14 February 1814).

The third phase saw Napoleon rush south to restore the situation on the Seine, where he defeated Schwarzenberg at Mormont (17 February 1814) and Montereau (18 February 1814). This was followed by something of a lull, as Schwarzenberg retreated rather than risk another battle.

The fourth phase saw Napoleon attack Blucher once again, this time with less success. Although he was able to force Blucher north of the Aisne, a minor French victory at Craonne (7 March 1814) was followed by a defeat at Laon (8-9 March 1814) and Napoleon was forced to retreat.

The fifth phase began with a successful French attack on General St. Priest at Rheims (13 March 1814), in the gap between the two Allied armies. This caused Blucher to retreat and Schwarzenberg to halt. Napoleon decided to launch another attack on Schwarzenberg, but this misfired. At Arcis-sur-Aube (20-21 March 1814) Napoleon ran into Schwarzenberg's main army, and once again was forced into a retreat.

The sixth and final phase began with Napoleon making a major gamble. He decided to move east after Arcis, and get onto the upper Marne and even the Meuse, where he could cut the Allies lines of communication back to Germany. This meant that there were only weak French forces between the Allies and Paris, but Schwarzenberg's cautious behaviour earlier in the campaign suggested that this threat to his rear areas would trigger yet another Allied retreat. Instead Schwarzenberg decided to ignore Napoleon, unite with Blucher and march on Paris. While Napoleon rested at St. Dizier on the Marne, the Allies defeated Marmont and Mortier at La-Fere-Champenoise (25 March 1814). This was right in the middle of the campaign area, and the French had suffered defeats nearer to Paris earlier in the campaign, but on those occasions Napoleon had been nearby and able to intervene. This time he was badly out of position, and was unable to intervene. As Napoleon desperately rushed towards his capital, the Allies advanced on Paris, pushed back the defenders of the city at Montmartre (30 March 1814), and on the following day entered the city.

Napoleon arrived outside Paris later on 31 March, and concentrated his army at Fontainebleau, but the loss of his capital was a blow from which he could not recover. Some of his marshals, led by Ney and Macdonald, made it clear that the Army wouldn't fight on, and Napoleon was forced to abdicate.

1813

29 December

The Allies began their winter campaign at the end of 1813. On 29 December Blucher crossed the Rhine at three widely spread location – Lahnstein south of Coblenz, Kaub about fifteen miles to the south and Mannheim, another fifty miles to the south-east. Even at the start of the campaign the Army of Silesia was widely spread out. 

1814

1 January

Three days after Blucher began to move, Schwarzenberg advanced towards Colmar, well to the south of Blucher's southernmost columns.

Early January

Napoleon had hoped to delay the Allies close to the French border, but it quickly became clear that this wasn't going to happen. Victor abandoned Strasbourg without a fight, perhaps understandable given that strong enemy columns were across the Rhine to his north and south. He then did the same at Nancy, a move that allowed the Allies to cross the Moselle. As a result the entire French line had to fall back. Marmont was nearly trapped at Kaiserslauten by Blucher's columns coming from Mannheim, and had to retreat. Napoleon responded to the Allied invasion by moving Mortier and the Old Guard south to Langres, to support Victor's southern flank.

13 January

On 13 January Marmont was back at Metz, but Blucher was close behind.

17 January

By 17 January Marmont, Ney and Victor were all behind the Meuse. A garrison was left behind in Metz, where it remained during the key part of the campaign.

On the allied side Schwarzenberg reached the Langres Plateau, a key position at the source of the Seine and the Marne. He then paused until 23 January.

22 January

The Meuse didn't prove to be much of a barrier, and on 22 January Blucher crossed the river.

23 January

The French were equally unable to defend the Marne, and on 23 January Sacken, with Blucher's advance guard, established a bridgehead over the Marne at Joinville. On the same day Schwarzenberg resumed his advance, heading north-west down the river valleys. As a result the two Allied armies were getting closer together. Mortier conducted a skilful fighting retreat in front of Schwarzenberg, but was unable to significantly slow down his advance.

24 January

By 24 January Mortier had been forced to retreat north-west from Langres to Bar-sur-Aube. On 24 January he was attacked by two Allied corps from Schwarzenberg's army, 3rd Corps (Count Giulay) and 4th Corps (Crown Prince of Wurttemberg). Mortier managed to hold off the Allies all day, but was badly outnumbered and overnight retreated west from Bar to Vendeuvre.

25 January

On 25 January Napoleon left Paris, heading for his new centre of operations at Chalons-sur-Marne.

26 January

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

On 26 January Napoleon reached Chalons. Ney with the Young Guard was with him at Chalons. In the north Macdonald was retreated from Liege towards Mezieres on the Meuse. Marmont was retreating from Metz towards Bar-le-Duc, east of Chalons. Victor was attempting to hold the line of the Marne between Vitry and St. Dizier, to the south-east of Chalons. General Gerard was to the south at Arcis-sur-Aube. Mortier with the Old Guard and one division of Gerard's corps was a little further to the south, retreating from Bar-sur-Aube towards Troyes. To the west General Allix was holding the crossing points over the Yonne at Sens and Auxerre.

On the Allied side Schwarzenberg was in three columns. His main body was moving from Langres through Bar-sur-Aube. On his right Wittgenstein and Wrede were moving west/ north-west from Epinal towards Neufchateau on the Marne. On his left Colloredo was moving towards Chatillon-sur-Seine.

Blucher was more spread out. Two of his corps were still in Germany, and he had troops besieging Verdun, Metz and Luxembourg. Yorck's corps was pursuing Marmont from Metz towards Bar-le-Duc. Blucher, with two corps, was moving north-west from Joinville towards St. Dizier, so was to the north-east of Schwarzenberg's main body.

Napoleon's first plan was to lead 34,000 troops against Blucher at St. Dizier. Marmont was to move to Bar-le-Duc to sever the Army of Silesia's communications, while Mortier and Gerard held up Schwarzenberg. During the day news arrived that Victor was struggling to hold Blucher at St. Dizier, but Napoleon decided to continue with his plan. However Blucher had already moved south-west from St. Dizier, and was on the road to Brienne.

 

First Phase - St. Dizier to La Rothiere (28 January-1 February)

27 January

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

On 27 January Blucher's main forces occupied Brienne. Sacken and Olsufiev took up positions around the town. Blucher was aware that Napoleon was on the move, but wasn't sure where he was heading.

Back on the Marne Milhaud's V Cavalry Corps hit Lanskoi's 2nd Hussar Division (First battle of St. Dizier, 27 January 1814). The Russians were forced out of the town so quickly that they didn't even have time to destroy the bridge over the Marne. Although Napoleon had been denied his major battle, his new army had at least won its first engagement.

28 January

On 28 January Napoleon prepared to hit Blucher at Brienne. He hoped to get between Blucher and Schwarzenberg, and trap Blucher against the Aube. Mortier was ordered to move to Arcis-sur-Aube, further down the river, to block one line of retreat.

29 January

On several occasions during the campaign of 1814 the Allies captured key French communications. On the morning of 29 January a copy of Napoleon's plans for the attack on Brienne fell into Blucher's hands. This gave him time to recall Sacken from Lesmont, further down the river, and so he had two corps with him for the battle of Brienne. The battle ended as a minor French victory, which greatly improved the morale of the French troops, but Napoleon was disappointed that he had failed to trap Blucher, who was able to retreat south towards Schwarzenberg.

30 January

After the battle of Brienne Napoleon decided to press Blucher, and he advanced south through La Rothiere.

31 January

Napoleon remained fairly quiet on 31 January. Mortier was ordered to return to Troyes, while Macdonald was to move to Chalons, but leave reinforcements at Vitry. The centre of French operations was moved from Chalons to Arcis. On the Allied side the decision was made to make a heavy attack on Napoleon, using a mix of Blucher's and Schwarzenberg's units.

1 February

This decision triggered the battle of La Rothiere. Napoleon wasn't expecting to be attacked, and was actually preparing for a move to Troyes when the Allies attacked. Ney was already on the road back through Brienne, and had to turn back when the Allies attacked. Once Napoleon realised what was going on he fought a masterful defensive battle, but that couldn't disguise that this was a defeat. Over the next two days the French were forced to retreat west towards Troyes, losing several thousand more recruits on the way.

At this point the Allies were in a very strong position, with large parts of their armies united and Napoleon defeated on his own ground (indeed within a few miles of his former school at Brienne). At this point they made a decision to split up and advance along different routes towards Paris. Blucher was to take his corps north to bring him closer to the rest of his army, and then move down the Marne towards Paris, while Schwarzenberg advanced down the Seine, hopefully pinning Napoleon in place. The two armies were to be linked by Wittgenstein's corps and a force of Cossacks.

3 February

On 3 February Napoleon and his army reached Troyes. Victor and Grouchy were posted on the road to Arcis-sur-Aube, Gerard and Defranc on the road to Bar-sur-Aube and Mortier on the road to Bar-sur-Seine. Marmont was to guard the line of the Aube. Troyes became the new centre of operations. The Old Guard, three divisions of the Young Guard and some National Guardsmen formed a reserve at Troyes. Napoleon's plan was to block Blucher and concentrate against Schwarzenberg.

On the Allied side things didn't go smoothly. Wrede was outmanoeuvred by Marmont near Arcis-sur-Aube. Grouchy blocked an attempt by Russian cavalry to cut the Troyes to Arcis road. Yorck was stuck outside Vitry, where the garrison was very determined. To the west General Allix blocked Platov's Cossacks at Sens on the Yonne. Finally the main Allied advance was slowed down when the Austrian and Prussian columns crossed each other's line of march at Vendeuvre.

5 February

At the start of 5 February Napoleon still believed that Blucher was heading for Nogent, and he ordered Marmont to head in that direction. Two veteran divisions from Spain were heading towards Nogent, where they were to form a new VII Corps for Oudinot, and Napoleon didn't want them to run into an Allied trap. Later during the day reports came in that placed Blucher further to the north, heading for Chateau-Thierry, Meaux and then to Paris along the Marne. Only Macdonald's weak force was in the way. Napoleon realised that he would have to move north to deal with Blucher.

Second Phase - The Six Days Campaign (10-14 February)

6 February

On 6 February Napoleon began to move against Blucher. Mortier was left to carry out a reconnaissance in force against Schwarzenberg's flank, while his main forces moved north-west to Nogent, arriving overnight on 6-7 February. Mortier's movement worried Schwarzenberg, who moved Wittgenstein closer to him, and then ordered a full scale retreat to Bar-sur-Aube that lasted for two days. Late on the day news arrived that Allied diplomats were now only willing to offer the 'Borders of 1792', rather than the Natural Borders that Napoleon had wanted. Given the circumstances Napoleon should have accepted these terms, but instead he sulked in his room for a full day, and when he emerged rejected the Allied offer.

7 February

On 7 February Macdonald sent news to Napoleon that he was in touch with Yorck's 18,000 men near Epernay on the Marne, but that he he no idea where the rest of Blucher's men were. Napoleon ordered Marmont to move his 8,000 men to Sezanne to try and find Blucher.

8 February

On 8 February Napoleon sent most of his cavalry and part of the Guard to join Marmont, as he was convinced Blucher couldn't be far from Sezanne.

9 February

The key news arrived at 9am on 9 February. Marmont had discovered Sacken and 15,000 of Blucher's men at Montmirail, 15 miles to the west of his current position at Champaubert. This meant that Blucher's men were spread out, and Napoleon had a chance to get into the middle of them and defeat each element in turn. Victor and Oudinot were left to guard the Seine. Victor was ordered to defend Nogent and the bridge at Pont-sur-Seine, with orders to stay on the left bank for as long as possible and keep the bridges intact if at all possible. Oudinot was to guard the bridges at Bray, Montereau, Pont-sur-Yonne Moret, Nemours, Montargis, Sens and Auxerre. The main French army, under Napoleon, was to move to Champaubert via Sezanne.

On the Allied side Blucher, who now had Yorck, Sacken, Olsufiev, Kleist and Kapzevitsch under his command was to advance towards Paris along the left bank of the Marne, while Schwarzenberg, who had returned to Troyes after ending his retreat was to keep Napoleon busy on the Seine and Aube. Schwarzenberg expected to fight a major battle near Nogent, and asked Blucher to send Kleist to attack Nogent from the north. Blucher agreed, and decided to send Kleist, Kapzevitshch and Olsufiev to Sezanne on 10 February. Late on 9 February he discovered that Napoleon was already moving north, and was at Sezanne, and changed his orders to try and surround him. Sacken was sent to pursue Macdonald, Yorck was moved to Montmirail. Blucher joined Kleist and Kapzevitsch, and led them south to La-Fere-Champenoise, from where he expected to move west to Sezanne to surround Napoleon. His plans were based on the assumption that Napoleon was already beaten and just needed rounding up.

10  February

The most impressive period of the campaign began on 10 February, and is known as the Six Days Campaign. Marmont and Ney defeated Olsufiev's isolated Russian infantry corps (battle of Champaubert), capturing the general and all but around 1,000 of his men. Blucher, who was only a few miles to the east, heard the gunfire but assumed that this wasn't a major attack and didn't make any effort to help Olsufiev. By the end of the day Napoleon was in a central position, and had an excellent chance to inflict more damage on Blucher. However heavy rain had turned most of the roads to mud, slowing down both sides.

When Blucher received news of the battle of Champaubert he retreated north to Vertus. Yorck was ordered to concentrate with Sacken at Montmirail, and their combined force was then to fight its way east to join Blucher. Yorck received his orders too late, and so would only play a limited part in the fighting on the following day. Sacken, who had advanced as far west at Trilport, turned back and would be the first Allied force to approach Montmirail.

Napoleon decided to concentrate on defeating the troops to his west. Macdonald was ordered to recapture Chateau-Thierry and block Sacken and Yorck's line of retreat. Marmont was left to watch Blucher. Napoleon, with the Guard, moved slowly west through the mud to reach Montmirail early on 11 February. His plan was to block Sacken and Yorck's route east and force them to retreat north towards the blocked bridge over the Marne.

11  February

At the start of 11 February three forces were thus heading towards Montmirail. Sacken was heading there from the west, after ignoring suggestions that he should use a more northerly route that would have taken him directly to Yorck. Yorck was moving slowly south after a delayed start. Finally Napoleon was heading west from Champaubert. At the start of the battle of Montmirail Napoleon was outnumbered by Sacken, but the Russians were unable to push their way past the French. Some of Yorck's leading troops arrived late in the day, but by then Napoleon had also received reinforcements, and their attack was repulsed. The battle ended as a French victory, but Yorck's late attack did at least allow Sacken to escape. Worse was to follow for the French – Macdonald had failed to reach Chateau-Thierry, and the Allies were thus able to escape to the north bank of the Marne.

There was also bad news from the Seine. Schwarzenberg began a fresh offensive, and Victor was forced back over the Seine. The French had a garrison at Nogent, but the Allies took Sens on the River Yonne. Genera Allix retreated from the Yonne to the River Loing, and Victor ordered Pajol to retreat to Montereau and demolish the bridge there.

12  February

Although Macdonald's failure allowed most of Sacken's and Yorck's men to retreat north across the Marne, they did leave several brigade on the southern bank, where they fought a costly rearguard action against the pursuing French, losing 3,000 prisoners and 20 guns (battle of Chateau-Thierry).

In the south the Allies defeated a National Guard force at Bray, ten miles to the west of Nogent, then captured the bridge at Pont-sur-Seine near Montereau. Victor's position at Nogent was no longer defensible, and he panicked and retreated without blowing the bridge.

News of the setbacks in the south reached both Blucher and Napoleon. Blucher correctly predicted that Napoleon would soon have to move south, and he advanced west with Kleist and Kapzevitsch to try and block that move.

13 February

The French finally got a bridge across the Marne, and Mortier and the cavalry were sent to pursue Sacken and Yorck. By this point they had already retreated across the Ourcy and destroyed another set of bridges, so the pursuit was in vain. Marmont, who had been left to watch Blucher, conducted a skilful fighting retreat from Vertus. In the south Oudinot was unable to slow down the Allied advance.

Napoleon responded by splitting his forces. Macdonald and Kellermann were sent south to join Oudinot, while he led the Guard and the rest of the cavalry to join Marmont.

14 February

The final battle of the Six Days came at Vauchamps. While Mortier's and Blucher's infantry fought along the main road, Grouchy's cavalry hit the Allied right flank. Blucher ordered a retreat when he spotted the Old Guard, but Grouchy almost trapped him. The Allies were saved by heavy mud that stopped the French horse artillery following the cavalry. After this defeat Blucher decided to pull back to Chalons, leaving a rearguard at Etoges.

Napoleon would have preferred to continue to press Blucher, but the news from the south was getting worse. Macdonald had reached Guignes, but made little impression on the overall situation. Napoleon ordered Marmont to continue the pursuit of Blucher, and then led Grouchy and the Guard on the road to the Seine front.

One of the reasons for Napoleon's eventual defeat was that the Allies could replace their losses. On 14 February General Winzingerode, with 30,000 Russians from the Army of the North, captured Soissons.  A few days later he joined Blucher at Chalons, replacing the troops lost during the Six Days Campaign. 

Third Phase - Defeat of Schwarzenberg on the Seine (mid February)

15 February

Napoleon left Montmirail at the start of an impressive forced march. Mortier was left north of the Marne, and Marmont south of the Marne, with orders to defend Paris at all costs. Victor, Oudinot and Macdonald were ordered to hold the line of the Yerres, a tributory of the Seine, for 72 hours.

On the Allied side Schwarzenberg stopped his advance, worried about Napoleon's movements.

16 February

On 16 February Schwarzenberg was largely static, with his troops around the Seine and in the area between the Seine and the Yerres. Wittgenstein was on the right, with his rear at Nogent and his advanced elements near to Guignes. Wrede was advancing from Bray. Wurttemburg and Bianchi were on the Allied left, at Montereau and threatening Fontainbleau.

At 3pm Napoleon reached Guignes with part of his infantry, after a forced march in which some men were carried in wagons and others struggled through the endless mud.

17 February

Napoleon's offensive against Schwarzenberg began with two successes, both won by the same column. Schwarzenberg's right and centre had been advancing north-west, so when Napoleon's centre, made up of Victor's corps, pushed south, it hit them both. In both cases the fighting was led by Gerard's division and Grouchy's cavalry. First they destroyed Pahlen's isolated force at Mormont, then they ran into Wrede's advance guard at Valjouen. Wittgenstein and Wrede had thus both suffered defeats. However Victor's performance was less impressive. He ignored an order to march through the night to reach Montereau, allowing Schwarzenberg's left wing, under the Crown Prince of Wurttemberg, to reach the town first. Wurttemberg then took up a defensive position north of the Seine, on the opposite bank to Montereau.

18 February

The second day of the offensive saw the units from Victor's corps attack Wurttemberg's positions at Montereau as they arrived. Early in the afternoon Gerard arrived, and discovered that he had replaced Victor as corps commander. He organised a more effective attack, before Napoleon arrived to take over. The battle of Montereau ended up as a major French victory. The Allied position was overrun, and heavy losses were suffered as the Allies retreated over the river bridges. Wurttemberg was forced into a full scale flight towards Bray.

19 February

The offensive against Schwarzenberg now began to run out of steam. Macdonald reached Bray and Oudinot reached Nogent too late to prevent the bridges from being destroyed. This allowed Schwarzenberg to retreat to Troyes while the French were slowly crossing the single bridge back at Montereau. Napoleon decided to advance towards Troyes, sending Gerard along the road from Sens while the main body went via Nogent and Oudinot via Romilly. Nogent was made the new centre of operations.

21 February

In response to the French advance, Schwarzenberg summoned Blucher's army south. On 21 February the leading elements of the two armies united at Mery-sur-Seine, with Blucher expected that they would turn and fight.

22 February

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

On 22 February the Allies held a council of war. Schwarzenberg wanted to retreat and avoid a clash with Napoleon's full army, and he got his way. Schwarzenberg's army began to retreat towards Bar-sur-Aube, via Vandeuvre between the Aube and Seine. Blucher, furious after being denied his battle, was sent back north, where he was given command of Winzingerode's and Bulow's corps from the Army of the North as well as his own army (leaving Bernadotte almost as angry).

On the French side Napoleon was heading for Troyes, south of Mery, hoping for a battle. Oudinot was detached to face Blucher and Wittgenstein near Mery.

23 February

At the start of 23 February Napoleon expected to fight a battle that day, but the Allied movements denied him satisfaction. Blucher was already on the way north, while Schwarzenberg was moving east, away from the French.  

24 February

Napoleon continued on to Troyes, where he received a hero's welcome. To the north Blucher crossed the Aube at Anglure, and threatened Marmont's position near Sezanne. Outnumbered by nine-to-one Marmont retreated to a position north of the town.

25 February

On 25 February Napoleon continued to try and press Schwarzenberg, but he wasn't entirely sure where the Allies were going. His leading troops reached Vandeuvre and Bar-sur-Seine. To the north Victor was to take his new Young Guard command to Mery-sur-Seine, while Ney took his part of the Guard to Arcis-sur-Aube.

On the Allied side there was another council of war. Schwarzenberg wanted to retreat towads Langres, and got his way. Blucher was to operate independently, with Winzingerode and Bulow under his command. If Napoleon turned north to deal with Blucher, Schwarzenberg agreed to resume his advance.

26 February

By the end of 26 February Blucher had reached La-Ferte-Gaucher on the Grand Morin, and was threatening Paris once again. This news greatly encountered Tsar Alexander and Frederick William III of Prussia, and they insisted that Schwarzenberg resumed his advance towards Bar-sur-Aube.

Fourth Phase - Against Blucher - Craonne & Laon (7-9 March)

27 February

News of Blucher's progress reached Napoleon, and he decided to try and trap him between the main French army and the forces of Marmont and Mortier around Meaux. Ney and Victor were sent through Arcis towards Sommesous, from where they would have to turn west to find Blucher. Napoleon and the Guard followed from Troyes. Macdonald was left in command on the Seine front, with Oudinot, Gerard, Kellermann and Milhaud and orders to convince the Allies that Napoleon was still present. This quickly fell apart, after news of Napoleon's movements reached Schwarzenberg. He resumed his offensive, and inflicted a heavy defeat on Oudinot at Bar-sur-Aube, which then exposed Macdonald's left flank to attack and forced a general retreat to the west bank of the Seine.

1 March

On 1 March the Allied heads of state held a conference at Chaumont. They agreed not to make a separate peace with the French, and offered Napoleon the Frontiers of 1791 as a final peace offering. Napoleon had until the 11th to decide, but he rejected these final terms.

At the start of the day Blucher was trying to catch Marmont and Mortier around Meaux, but suffered a series of failures. During the day news arrived that the French were at Sezanne, and Blucher ordered his men to the north bank of the Marne. Napoleon was then stuck on the Marne waiting for bridges to be built, while Blucher moved north to try and find Winzingerode and Bulow. He wasn't sure where they actually were, and so decided to go towards Laon, north of the Aisne. At this point Winzingerode and Bulow were actually besieging Soissons on the Aisne, so Blucher was heading in the right general direction.

3 March

On 3 March General Moreau surrendered Soissons, after negotiating what seemed like decent terms. As was often the case in this campaign, he hadn't realised how important his task was. The surrender of Soissons allowed Blucher to cross the Aisne and join up with his reinforcements, and denied Napoleon the chance for a probable victory.

4 March

Napoleon reached Fismes, to the south-east of Soissons, where he learnt of the surrender of Soissons, and that Marmont and Mortier had remained inactive while waiting for fresh orders. On the same day Blucher began to cross the Aisne.

5 March

Blucher completed his move across the Aisne and joined up with his reinforcements. Although Napoleon had missed his best chance of a victory, he still assumed that Blucher was retreating, and decided to follow him across the Aisne to try and push him further away from Schwarzenberg. He crossed the Aisne at Berry-au-Bac with Ney, Victor and the Guard. Marmont and Mortier were ordered to move east to Soissons, blockade any Allied garrison they found there, and then join Napoleon at Laon. Later in the day news arrived that Victor had lost Troyes, and Macdonald had retreated back to Nogent, losing the upper Seine once again,

6 March

As Napoleon advanced from Berry his scouts reported a Prussian force on the plateau of Craonne. Napoleon assumed this was Blucher's rearguard, and prepared to attack. Ney got a foothold on the plateau late in the day, but the main battle came on the following day.

7 March

The resulting battle of Craonne was a disappointment for both sides. Blucher had hoped to draw Napoleon onto the plateau and then hit his right flank. Napoleon had hoped for a double envelopment of the Prussians. Neither plan worked, with Ney attacking too soon on the French side, and the Allied flanking force moving too slowly. The battle ended as a minor French victory, but Napoleon still continued to believe that he only faced the Allied rearguard, and that Blucher was heading for Belgium or the River Oise. As a result Napoleon believed that he could recapture Laon, where Blucher was actually planning to make a stand.

8 March

8 March saw some limited fighting south of Laon, as the French worked their way past a difficult narrow causeway over a swamp and approached the town.

9 March

The two day battle of Laon ended as a clear French defeat. At the start of the battle fog covered the battlefield, so Napoleon didn't realise that Blucher's entire army was around Laon, and Blucher didn't realise how weak the French army really was. Napoleon decided to send his cavalry around Laon, while Ney's infantry captured it from the south, but this plan failed when the cavalry ran into heavy opposition in the fog and had to retreat. The fog then lifted, revealing the presence of Blucher's army. Napoleon continued to attack, but Ney and Mortier were unable to make any real progress.

On the French right Marmont arrived on the battlefield during the day, but several miles to the east of the main body and with no direct communications. He captured the village of Athies, to the east of Laon, but then camped, assuming that the fighting was over for the day. Blucher ordered an attack on Marmont's men, and his corps was swept away. Only a couple of lucky moments prevented its total destruction. Blucher issued orders for a general attack on the following morning, that if carried out might have destroyed Napoleon's army. 

10 March

On the second day of the battle Blucher fell ill, and Gneisenau, who took over, failed to take advantage of the situation. He cancelled the planned attack, and at the end of the day Napoleon was able to escape with most of his army intact.

11 March

During the day most of Napoleon's force retreated towards Soissons, which had been retaken by the French. Ney and the rearguard fought off a limited Prussian pursuit at Clacy.

Fifth Phase - Against Schwarzenberg - Rheims to Arcis-sur-Aube (13-21 March)

13 March

Napoleon's last significant victory of the campaign came late in the day at Rheims. General St. Priest, a French émigré, had advanced from St. Dizier and captured the city. Napoleon's forces reached Rheims in the late afternoon of 13 March and found the Allies deployed to the south of the city, ready to repel a minor attack. Instead St. Priest found himself being attacked by Napoleon's main force. In the battle that followed St. Priest was killed, his force largely dispersed, and Rheims liberated by Napoleon, who was greeted as a hero once again.

14 March

The news from Rheims caused a temporary panic amongst the Allied leaders. Blucher stopped his slow pursuit of the French and returned to Laon, while Schwarzenberg stopped his slow advance over the Seine. Napoleon decided to leave Marmont and Mortier to watch Blucher, and took Ney's corps, Delafrance's division, Friant's division of the Old Guard and Sebastiani's cavalry along the road from Rheims to Arcis and then towards Troyes, in the hope that he could get behind Schwarzenberg's army and cause more chaos. He shifted his route west to Mery-sur-Seine when news arrived that there was an Allied garrison in Arcis.

17 March

Napoleon's advance convinced Schwarzenberg to retreat back to Troyes, and he would soon move further east. To the north Blucher defeated Marmont at Fismes, while Mortier had to abandon Rheims and move west to join Marmont.

19 March

Napoleon advanced towards the Aube in two columns. His own force crossed the river near Plancy, west of Arcis, and then attempted to cut the Troyes to Nogent road, but the Allies had already retreated east of Troyes, so this had no impact.

20 March

On 20 March Ney's leading division reached Arcis from the north, while Sebastiani's cavalry arrived from the west. Ney then advanced a mile or so to the east, obeying Napoleon who believed that he only faced a rearguard (again!). Once again he was wrong – Schwarzenberg had decided to risk a battle in the belief that Napoleon was heading for Troyes, and his corps were heading for the Aube. A strong Allied cavalry force hit the French cavalry at Arcis, and nearly forced them into a chaotic retreat across the single bridge. They were saved by the arrival of Napoleon and Friant's Old Guard division, and the situation was restored. To the east Ney fought off Wrede's Bavarians, and by the end of the day the French appeared to have won a clear victory (battle of Arcis-sur-Aube, 20-21 March 1814).

21 March

The second day might have been disastrous for the French. Schwarzenberg had assembled most of his army behind a line of low hills to the south-east of the town, without alerting the French. Napoleon even ordered Ney and Sebastiani to attack, but when they reached the top of the first hills they discovered Schwarzenberg's entire army arrayed before them. Luckily for the French Schwarzenberg didn't order an immediate attack. Soon after noon the French began to retreat back across the river, having thrown a pontoon bridge across the river. By the time the Allies attacked, at about 3pm, the French retreat was well underway, and Oudinot and Sebastiani managed to hold the Allies off until the retreat was complete.

Sixth Phase - Napoleon moves East, the Allies take Paris (22-31 March)

22 March

Napoleon now made a fatal mistake. He decided to move east to get into the Allied rear areas, in the hope that this would force them to pull back to deal with the threat. He also hoped to pick up reinforcements from the besieged garrisons of Metz and Verdun. After meeting up with Macdonald and Kellermann near Ormes, north of the Aubes, he set off on the road to St. Dizier.

Unluckily for the French, a copy of a letter from Napoleon to the Empress fell into Allied hands, revealing his plans. Schwarzenberg decided to ignore Napoleon's move east, and instead moved north to join up with Blucher. The combined armies would then operate against Napoleon's rear and flanks.

23 March

On 23 March Napoleon continued to move east, while Schwarzenberg began to move north.

24 March

The Allies now captured messages that revealed that Paris was in a state of panic. The Tsar forced Schwarzenberg to change his plans. The combined armies would now advance down the Marne towards Paris, and ignore anything that Napoleon chose to do in their rear areas. Winzingerode, with a force of cavalry, would move on St. Dizier to try and fool Napoleon.

25 March

Marmont and Mortier were now in the area between the Marne and the Aube, looking to join up with Napoleon. They were unaware that Schwarzenberg was now moving in their direction, and were thus caught by surprise when he attacked. The resulting battle of La-Fere-Champenoise was one of the worst French defeats of the campaign, and saw the Marshals lose around 10,000 men, just over half of their entire force. This forced them to retreat towards Meaux, and then Paris, while the Allies were free to unite and follow. 

26 March

Winzingerode's force did briefly confuse Napoleon. At first he believed this must be Schwarzenberg's advance guard, swallowing the bait. Only after he destroyed Winzingerode's force at St. Dizier and found that there was nobody behind him did Napoleon realise that he had been tricked.

27 March

On 27 March the news of La-Fere-Champenoise reached Napoleon. He now realised that he had blundered, and there was no chance of his army reached Paris ahead of the Allies. At first Napoleon considered leaving Paris to its own devices and shifting the government to Orleans, but it soon became clear that opinion would turn against him if he lost Paris, and he was forced to try and rush to the rescue.

28 March

On 28 March Napoleon left St. Dizier, heading for Bar-sur-Aube and Troyes, the more direct route having been blocked by the Allied defenders of Vitry. On the same day the Allied armies completed their junction near the outskirts of Paris.

29 March

On 29 March Napoleon's wife and son left Paris and headed for the south.

30 March

On 30 March Napoleon reached Troyes. He gave command of the army to Berthier, and headed on with a small escort and staff. This eventually dwindled down to a post-chaise and five officers, but even that wasn't enough.

The Allied armies began the attack on Paris on 30 March, aware that Napoleon would soon reach the city and determined to capture it before he did. Marmont and Mortier managed to slow down the Allied advance, but by the end of the day had been forced out of many of the outlying villages (battle of Paris or Montmartre). At about noon King Joseph left the city, leaving the Marshals with permission to surrender the city if it couldn't be held. By the end of the day Marmont realised that the game was up, and entered into armistice talks with the Tsar.

31 March

../Charles-Maurice Prince of Talleyrand
Charles-Maurice Prince of Talleyrand

At 2am on 31 March Marmont agreed armistice terms with the Allies. The French army was allowed to leave the city and head south, and the Allies would enter the city after 6am. There would be a ceasefire until 9am. Napoleon had ordered every member of his government to leave Paris, but Talleyrand ignored this order, and soon established a good relationship with the Tsar. He greeted him as he entered Paris, and inviting the Tsar to stay in his palace. His aim now was to convince the Allies to restore the Bourbons.

Napoleon had almost reached Paris in time. On 31 March he passed through Fontainebleau, and had reached Essonnes before he ran into the messenger sent to inform him of the fall of the city. All he could do was return to Fontainebleau and wait for his army to catch up. 

1 April

At Fontainebleau Napoleon was now gathering a significant army. Orleans was declared to be the new centre of operations, and plans were put in place to manoeuvre the Allies out of Paris.

Back in Paris Talleyrand summoned the Senate. Sixty-four out of 140 members attended, and they declared the formation of a new provisional government, with Talleyrand as president.

2 April

In Paris the senate passed an act deposing Napoleon as Emperor. The news reached Fontainebleau late in the day.

3 April

At the start of 3 April Napoleon was still determined to fight, but by the end of the day he had decided to abdicate in favour of his son. The exact size of Napoleon's army at this point is unclear, with figures ranging from 35,000 to 60,000, but the Allies were aware that he still had a powerful army, and were reluctant to risk fighting him in Paris. They even went as far as preparing to withdraw a short distance from the city, although events would mean these plans were never needed.

At noon on 3 April Napoleon conducted a review of the Imperial Guard, starting with the infantry and then moving onto the cavalry. Napoleon read out a declaration in which he promised to chase the Allies out of Paris.

Several of the Marshals were greatly concerned by this idea. Their motives varied, with some remembering the fate of Moscow, others worrying about their own families and property inside the city and others sick of the fighting. Moncey, Lefebvre, Macdonald and Ney all met with Napoleon and attempted to convince him to resign. The key exchange is said to have been between Napoleon and Ney. Ney claimed that the army would refuse to march, a not entirely convincing argument. Napoleon replied that 'The army will obey me'. Ney responded with 'The army obeys its generals'. In this argument Napoleon was probably correct, at least for most of the army, but it must have been the loss of Ney's support that was most convincing. Napoleon agreed to abdicate in favour of his son.

Elsewhere at least one of Napoleon’s marshals was actively involved in talks with the Allies. Marmont, who had arranged the capitulation of Paris, had remained in contact with the Allies, and they had slowly convinced him that the time had come to lay down his arms. Marmont agreed to move his corps to Versailles, already in Allied hands, and then take it out of the war zone. Most of his senior commanders, starting with General Souham, were won over. A detailed plan for the movement was worked out, only the date remained uncertain.

4 April

Early on 4 April Napoleon drew up his first abdication, offering to abdicate in favour of his son, with the Empress as regent. Ney, Macdonald, Caulaincourt and Oudinot were sent to carry the offer to the Allied monarchs, starting with Tsar Alexander. On the way they visited Marmont, and attempted to convince him to join the group. Marmont accompanied the mission into Paris, but remained in Macdonald's carriage during the actual meeting. Napoleon, Macdonald and Caulaincourt presented the abdication offer to the Tsar, who agreed only to consult with his fellow monarchs. This triggered quite an argument between supports of a Bourbon restoration, and those who were willing to accept Napoleon's son as Emperor in order to avoid a longer war.

5 April

The key moment was the abdication of Marmont's corps. Late on 4 April Napoleon summoned Souham to a meeting. Souham assumed that news of the plot had leaked, and decided to implement the agreement with the Allies. At 4am Marmont's corps began to move, and despite some discontent in the ranks the movement was safely completed. This news reached the Allied monarchs in Paris early in the day, and helped convince them to reject Napoleon's first offer. The news of Marmont's betrayal reached Napoleon later on the same day, and came as a great blow.

6 April

News of the rejection of his first abdication terms reached Napoleon on 6 April. He was in the middle of arranging a retreat to the Loire, but the news deflated him and he decided to offer his unconditional abdication. Afterwards he carried out a review of the survivors from II and VII Corps.

Over the next few days the final terms of Napoleon's abdicate were agreed. The resulting Treaty of Fontainebleau was actually quite generous. Napoleon was given the Island of Elba, was allowed a guard of 600 men, and was to be paid 2 millions francs per year. The treaty was signed in Paris on 11 April. On 12 April Napoleon received the terms, and was disappointed to discover that the Empress had been offered Parma and not Tuscany. This suggested that she wouldn't be free to travel to Elba. Napoleon became concerned, and attempted to bring his wife to Fontainebleau. After this failure Napoleon became very depressed, and early on 13 April he attempted to commit suicide using a poison he had requested during the Russian campaign. The poison had lost its effectiveness, and just caused a night of sickness. Later on 13 April Napoleon signed the Treaty. A few days later he left Fontainebleau with an escort of 1,000, after an emotional parting from the Old Guard.

This should have been the end of the Napoleonic Wars, but the Bourbons handled their return from exile very badly, and soon stirred up discontent across large parts of France. Napoleon was restless on his island principality, and couldn't resist the temptation to make one more bid from power. In 1815 he returned to France, gained support as he marched north, and was soon, if briefly, back in power. The Hundred Days and the battle of Waterloo thus became the final memory of Napoleon, replacing his skilful but doomed defence of France in 1814.

Conclusion

The main question that surrounds the 1814 is 'could Napoleon have won?' The answer to this question depends on your definition of victory. Looking at the desperate situation Napoleon found himself in at the start of the year, most people would say that any reasonable peace that kept the Emperor on his throne would have been a victory. If that is the case, then one can argue that each time the Allies offered peace terms Napoleon had indeed won the campaign.

Unfortunately for the Emperor and his supporters, Napoleon didn't share that definition of victory. Although on occasions he claimed to be willing to accept less generous terms, his main aim was to retain the 'natural borders' of France – the Alps and the Rhine. At the peak of his success during the campaign he may even have convinced himself that he could actually defeat the invasion and enforce his own peace terms.

A second question is how did Napoleon achieve so much success with a tiny army, containing many inexperienced recruits, against much larger Allied armies. Here the answer is a combination of Napoleon's own impressive abilities when leading small armies and the often unimpressive performance of the Allied commanders. The most important element of this was the difference in attitude between the two leading Allied commanders, Blucher and Schwarzenberg.

Blucher was known as 'Marshal Forwards', because of his general attitude to strategy (although he did demonstrate the ability to retreat when needed in this campaign). For much of the campaign Blucher was also convinced that the French were already defeated, and was somewhat reckless, allowing his army to get dangerously stretched out as he advanced on Paris.

In contrast Schwarzenberg was a cautious commander, who generally advanced slower than Blucher and retreated more readily.

As a result gaps often developed between the two Allied armies, with Blucher normally well ahead of Schwarzenberg, and smaller gaps developed between the elements of Blucher's army. It was this that allowed Napoleon to win the 'Six Day's Campaign', where he got into the middle of Blucher's army while Schwarzenberg was too far away to help.

Napoleon's subordinates often get a lot of the blame for his eventual defeat, but that seems rather unfair. They were often given unrealistic tasks, generally to try and hold up a vastly superior enemy while Napoleon led the best part of the army somewhere else. This was particularly the case on the southern front, where weak French forces were left to face the main Allied army and asked to defend long stretches of river. There are some occasions where marshals did perform badly – Macdonald's failure to capture the bridge at Chateau-Thierry in early February or the failure to destroy key bridges over the Seine in early March spring to mind.

The Allied commanders also have to take some of the credit for their victory. Their policy of generally avoiding battle against Napoleon in person repeatedly frustrated his attempts to win a decisive victory, especially against the more cautious Schwarzenberg. Even Blucher was willing to retreat when necessary. However not of these short retreats turned into a general withdrawal towards the French frontier – every time Napoleon moved away to deal with one of his opponents, the other resumed their advance, denying him the time to fully exploit his victories. Finally the decision to begin the invasion of France in mid-winter made a big difference, catching Napoleon off guard and with his preparations incomplete.

Napoleonic Home Page | Books on the Napoleonic Wars | Subject Index: Napoleonic Wars

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (27 June 2016), French Campaign of 1814 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/campaigns_france_1814.html

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