200 years ago: 1814: The French Campaign, step by step

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Every week, read a new episode about the French Campaign: small texts taken from our "200 years ago" section in our weekly Bulletin. Don't forget to put this page in your internet favourites in order not to miss anything!

Before January: the March towards the Invasion of France

Reaching the fortress at Mainz on the river Rhine on 2 November in the morning, Napoleon remained there for six days trying to reconstitute what remained of the army (70,000 men, of which thousands were sick with typhus and only 30,000 were properly under orders). As he noted in a letter Cambaceres written that very day, “I'm attempting to rally, rest and reorganize the army” (meaning, “the army is dispersed, exhausted and disorganised”). With the Confederation of the Rhine collapsing (Duke Louis of Darmstadt and Frederick of Wurtemburg joined the allies on the same day), Napoleon headed for Paris incognito on 7 November to begin preparations for the continuation of the fight.
– 2 DECEMBER, 1813: “ORANJE BOVEN!” (‘Long Live the House of Orange'): William I of Orange, made Sovereign Prince of the Netherlands on 2 December, 1813
After nineteen years in exile, the Prince of Orange returned to the Netherlands on 30 November, 1813. He was received with a triumphant welcome in Scheveningen, a reception all the more cordial given the anti-French riots which had taken place in all of the main Dutch cities (see Bulletin n° 690), with support from the United Kingdom and Prussia. Upon the Prince of Orange's arrival in Harlem on 1 December, he declared: “I have come amongst you, determined to forgive and to forget the past.” In Amsterdam, on the following day, 2 December – quite ironically (see the beginning of this Bulletin), William I of Orange was proclaimed Sovereign Prince of the Netherlands by the interim Dutch government.
The French evacuated the Netherlands quickly, though some garrisons held out strongholds such as Breda or Berg-op-Zoom. In the meantime, the Grande Armée was preparing to leave for other fronts. Rapp had capitulated on 29 November in Danzig after an 11-month siege, and the allied armies were about to enter France, since Belgium was also slipping away from French control, following the Dutch example. On 4 December, the coalition signed the Declaration of Frankfort, in which the allies solemnly declared to be at war with Napoleon and not France.

After a long period of wet weather in the Pyrenees, the sun came out, and Wellington confident in the sunshine and in the news of Napoleon's defeat at Leipzig, decided to advance upon the key fortress of Bayonne on 9 December, 1813. With the roads however still in a waterlogged state, he launched an indecisive attack on the French positions before Bayonne. Soult thought Wellington's position weak (the latter's troops were separated by the swollen river Nive) and launched a counterattack on the following day. This too foundered, not just because of the weather but also from the chopped-up nature of the terrain – in the absence of a precise battle line, detachments found themselves either surrounded or attacked from behind. The British and allied troops held on, and the two days ended in stalemate, both sides having lost about 2,000 men. As Wellington attempted to consolidate his position around Bayonne, Soult once again tried to take advantage of the Anglo-Irish general's ‘false' position across the Nive and attacked the British right under Hill before St Pierre d'Irube, cut off from the rest of the army by the exceptionally high Nive – so high that an allied pontoon bridge had been swept away. Once again, the British and allied troops held on in the face of a stiff French attack – some Portuguese divisions performed particularly well and saving some British bacon – and Soult was forced to fall back on Bayonne having lost nearly 6,000 men over the five preceding days – only 800 more than his opponents. The writing was on the wall for the French Empire. With France close to being invaded, foreign contingents within the French army (notably German or Italian in the theatre around Bayonne) were either returning home or being sent back – this despite Napoleon's orders to have them disarmed and interned far from the front line.
At the end of August 1813, an Austrian army marched into Italy against Viceroy Eugène and his ill-equipped and inexperienced army of 56,000 men, a majority of whom were not French. Murat had returned to Naples on 5 November. Observing the state of agitation in areas openly expressing their anti-French sentiment, he immediately began negotiations with Austria and with Italian Nationalists. In fact, Murat was preparing for several possible outcomes. Whilst conferring with the Austrians, he was leaving open the possibility of supporting Italian Independence within a unified kingdom under either Eugène… or himself. The state would not be hostile to the Emperor, but it would nevertheless be outside the Empire. This new status for Italy would theoretically have obviated any need for direct intervention from the coalition on Italian soil. Napoleon took no notice of Murat's letters presenting this plan. There were rumours that Murat had joined the enemy camp and that his men were disarming Eugène's troops in Rome. In December, Napoleon sent Fouché to inquire about the position of the king of Naples. Far from informing Napoleon of current intrigues, Fouché delayed the negative reports. Once Napoleon received confirmation that Murat had indeed been negotiating with the Austrians, he fulminated: “the perpetrator of such infamous treason – has there ever been such? – will certainly have to face the consequences”. On 31 December, the Austrian envoy Neipperg, Marie-Louise's future second husband, made it a fundamental condition, if Murat was to keep his throne, that he should declare war on France. On 6 January, Murat's minister, Gallo, negotiated a treaty, which was signed during the night of 7 to 8 January and immediately ratified by the king. Murat was indeed eager to make a pact with Austria, since the British were actively working for a return of the Bourbons to both parts of the kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Although the text was dated 11 January, negotiations continued for another month. Murat was forced to give up Sicily, which then remained under British influence (Britain and Naples negotiated an armistice at the same time, signed on 26 January), but was allowed to extend his territory northwards at the expense of the states around Rome. Murat then placed 30,000 Neapolitan troops at the disposal of the coalition – the soldiers that Murat had never sent to Eugène back in November – to operate in Northern Italy. The only restriction was that they should not enter French territory.

January 1814: First fights in Champagne

The Emperor devoted the third week of January 1814 to the preparations for the French Campaign. On 20 January, at 11am, Napoleon reviewed several cavalry regiments at the Louvre Carrousel. On 23 January, he received the officers of the National Guards and presented his son to them. He also signed patent letters making Marie-Louise the regent and received the final oaths of allegiance from civil servants. On the following day, 24 January, he appointed Joseph as Lieutenant of the Empire, and gave one final goodbye kiss to his son and his wife before leaving Paris on 25 January at six in the morning and arrived in Châlons late in the evening – he was never to see them again.
At the end of January 1814, Blücher's army was, of all the allied troops, the most likely to reach the French capital. Napoleon therefore in the three days between 25 and 29 January focused his attention on this army, vainly scouring the area around Saint-Dizier (near Troyes and Reims) in the hope of confronting the Prussians. The battle eventually took place near Brienne, the very town where young Bonaparte had completed his military training. On 29 January in the evening, while the battle was raging, Napoleon was nearly killed in an ambush. As he was riding at the front of some of his troops, listening to a report by General Gourgaud, a Cossack suddenly emerged and attacked the Emperor with a lance. Gourgaud shot him dead at point-blank range. Later, Napoleon was to give the General one of his own swords to thank him for saving his life. However, Napoleon on St Helena (merely a few years later) refused to credit Gourgaud with saving his life, something which Jacques Macé, who wrote a biography of General Gourgaud in 2006 (in French), described as a sort of “moral cruelty”. Blücher had to abandon the Brienne château in the face of a French attack and was forced to wait for Schwarzenberg's Austrian reinforcements whilst Napoleon was attempting to consolidate his troops. Two days later, on 1 February, 100,000 Allied troops were to take on 40,000 Frenchmen at La Rothière.

February 1814

The Battle of La Rothière was in fact the second day of the Battle of Brienne. It started at 1pm on 1 February but was lost in five hours by the French, who were outnumbered by more than 2 to 1 (40,000 vs 100,000 combined allies). After his troops had fought heroically and suffered great losses, Napoleon ordered a retreat via the Lesmont bridge, which Schwartzenberg had not managed to take, and the French retired to the Brienne château towards 8pm. The Emperor left Brienne on 2 February, spent the night in Piney, and entered Troyes at about 3pm on Thursday 3. He was to stay there three days. It was there he learnt that Blücher had decided to march on Paris without coordinating his movements with Schwartzenberg; the latter's shortcomings at La Rothière had greatly annoyed Blücher. Napoleon happily seized upon this separation of the two armies, which in fact levelled the playing field for him.

As he was withdrawing towards Troyes after the unfortunate Battle of La Rothière, (see above), Napoleon was informed that his two enemies, Blücher and Schwarzenberg, were no longer fighting together, and that the Prussian was heading towards Paris. So the Emperor decided to concentrate all his forces on Sacken and Olsufiev's men that Blücher had detached to Meaux. On 10 February in Champaubert, Napoleon thus swept Olsufiev, and on 11 February, it was Sacken who was on the receiving end in Montmirail. On 14 February, in Vauchamp, Blücher attempted to retake the initiative, but the French army, then more numerous, were to win the day. Blücher was momentarily paralysed by the lack of supplies and the loss of nearly 20,000 men. Napoleon could now turn his attention to Schwartzenberg, whose forces had so far been held in check by Mortier.
On the evening of the victory at Vauchamp (14 February), Napoleon decided to stop pursuing Blücher and turned instead towards the Bohemian army which was threatening Paris. Once he had joined with Victor and Oudinot's men, Napoleon was able to launch his offensive towards Montereau, which he retook on 18 February. There Napoleon was told, on 20 February, the official news about the King of Naples' defection (see above, January 1814). At the same time, the Congress of Châtillon was taking place (it had started on 5 February). Caulaincourt had been given carte blanche to negotiate peace with the allies. The conditions the latter were now demanding were far harsher than those proposed in Frankfurt. It was no longer a question of preserving France's natural borders; now they demanded that France return to the frontiers of 1792. After the defeat in La Rothière, Caulaincourt had hardly any room for manoeuvre in the negotiations; and even that was curtailed by the fact that Razumovsky (following the Tsar's instructions) was secretly trying to overturn the negotiations. In fact, Razumovsky was successful in that he caused the talks to stop on 10 February – the period of Napoleon's first victories. Napoleon withdrew the full powers from Caulaincourt on 12 February. On 19 February, the French Emperor received a peace proposal from the Allies, which he officially and categorically rejected: “I am ready to cease hostilities and to let the enemies go safely back home, provided they sign the preliminaries based on the Frankfurt propositions”. The month of March was to prove that this attempt to find a diplomatic solution was in vain. Despite the disagreements, the Coalition – which included Austria, the dynastic links between the two empires being in the end of little importance – had already moved on: all it intended to put in place now was a Napoleon-free Europe.

Whilst the Emperor was campaigning in the region of Champagne in order to save the capital from capture, he was also thinking how to keep the morale of the people up and how to ensure the continued support of the population of Paris. This is why a parade of Russian prisoners took place on the Boulevard Saint-Martin in Paris after the victory at Montmirail, on 17 February. On the day after the victory in Montereau, on 19 February, 1814, Napoleon wrote a letter to the French Ministry of War, Clarke, suggesting there should be another parade of the same type: “It seems appropriate to me there should be a review of the national guard before a parade of flags and with military music. You should say that these flags were taken at the Battles of Montmirail, Vauchamps and Montereau.” On 27 February, when this second parade took place, Troyes had been recaptured from the Austrians three days previously. 
At the beginning of February 1814, Napoleon had sent Caulaincourt to Châtillon to negotiate a possible peace treaty with the Coalition, based on the Treaty of Frankfurt. But his enemies had other plans in mind. No doubt the allies were somewhat taken aback by the Emperor's unexpected victories during this first phase of the French Campaign. They were also facing internal dissent, as Blücher and Schwarzenberg's movements were not well coordinated. Moreover, the allies met in Chaumont at the end of February to examine the project of a new alliance against Napoleon, at the initiative of the British Minister Castlereagh. This treaty, signed on 9 March but dated 1 March, stipulated that each member of the Coalition – namely Prussia, Russia, Austria and the United Kingdom – vowed to continue its war effort and would refuse to sign any separate peace treaty. It also envisaged that, should France attack them again during the next twenty years, the Coalition would automatically be reactivated.

March 1814

With Napoleon on his heels, Blücher halted at Oulchy-le-Château, in the hope of being able to take a stand there once he had received reinforcements from Bülow and Wintzingerode. This plan however came to nothing and he was forced to retreat because both Bülow and Wintzingerode, in spite of his orders to join the Silesian army, had begun the siege of Soissons. To everyone's surprise, the city capitulated almost immediately, on 5 March, allowing the allies to free passage across the river Aisne. Napoleon, furious at the loss of Soissons, nevertheless continued military operations and forced his way over the bridge of Berry-au-Bac (also on 5 March). Blücher then managed to reorganise his army and let it rest, making it possible for him to retake the offensive. The confrontation at Craonne took place on 7 March. In the end, it was only at nightfall, and after severe losses on both sides, that the allies abandoned the field, leaving Napoleon sole master of it. On 9 March, before Laon, the French Emperor came up against the allies who had adopted an extremely strong position, and he was forced into retreat towards Soissons to reorganise his army and to attempt to make up for his recent losses, which had been particularly severe for the men under Marmont after their attempt to take Athies. These successive defeats demoralised part of the army and caused a new wave of desertions from French ranks.

The costly Battle of Orthez, 27 February, as planned by Wellington, put Marshal Soult in an exceedingly difficult position. Pushed away from Bayonne by Wellington towards Toulouse, Soult was furthermore deprived of half of his cavalry by the Emperor who requisitioned them for service near Paris. The road was now open for Wellington to send General Beresford to the strategic port of Bordeaux. The British general entered the almost unprotected town on 12 March – the inhabitants had already expressed their pro-Bourbon inclinations. Beresford was in fact welcomed by the locals as a liberator.
On another front, Augereau had been trying to counter Austrian troop manoeuvres in the Ain region and the Rhone valley since January. On 18 March, he met his first clear defeat at Saint-Georges-de-Reneins, about forty kilometres north of Lyons. On 20 March, 1814, the battle of Limonest, on the outskirts of Lyons, sounded the death knell for any further hopes he may have had. The 24,000 troops under his command came up against 56,000 Austrians. Overwhelmed by the sheer numbers, Augereau's men were driven back. On 22 March, Austrian troops entered Lyons.

After the defeat in Laon, Napoleon managed to re-organize his troops near Soissons, and to retake the city of Rheims from the Prussians. He was then faced with a dilemma: he could either follow his initial plan and join his men left in Lorraine and in Alsace to the East, or he could keep protecting Paris, and for this he needed to stop the inexorable progression of the allies towards the capital. He chose the second option and came back towards Troyes in order to stop Schwarzenberg on his way to Paris. The allied army (100,000 men) and French army (27,000 men under Napoleon's direct leadership) fought at Arcis-sur-Aube on 20 and 21 March. The French resisted bravely but only avoided total defeat thanks to Schwarzenberg's errors (the latter omitted to destroy the only bridge over the river Aube which was indispensable to Napoleon's retreat). In fact this omission by Allies (and also negligence in pursuing their enemies) was the sign of a change in allied strategy, namely to concentrate solely on reaching Paris without worrying about the French Emperor's moves. Tsar Alexander of Russia had approved this strategic change: on 23 March, he had learned of the turmoil in Paris via an intercepted letter to the Emperor, supposedly from Savary. The decision to march on the city whatever the cost was approved on 24 March after an allied council of war in Sommepuis: thereupon the combined allied armies converged on Paris.
On 28 March, with the allies' advance becoming extremely threatening, an extraordinary Regency Council met in the Tuileries with Empress Marie-Louise, the latter supported by Joseph Bonaparte. In the face of advice from the majority of the council – composed of the presidents of the legislature, the Senate and the ministers -, Joseph decided to take the Empress and the Roi de Rome away from the capital, thus respecting the Emperor's wishes (declared earlier). Indeed, Blücher and Schwarzenberg were at the gates of Paris, the former at St-Denis (north of Paris) and the latter at Bondy and Neuilly-sur-Marne (to the east). On 30 March, Moncey and his 40,000 men, bolstered with volunteer reinforcements, were to defend Paris against the 100,000 men of the allies. The Clichy Gate fell after a bitter struggle, with enemy troops over-running the St-Denis plain. Around 4pm, Marmont attempted to negotiate a 24-hour truce. His plan was to wait for the Emperor who was near Juvisy. The French capital however was to cave in on Alexander I's threat to ransack and pillage the city. Capitulation was signed at 2am on 31 March, and the remains of the Grande Armée that had stayed to defend the capital evacuated Paris. On 1 April, the Senate, under Talleyrand's influence, were to vote for the destitution of Napoleon from the imperial throne. The Emperor, on learning the news of the fall of Paris barely twenty kilometres away from the city, turned around and established camp at Fontainebleau. It was here that he was to be forced to negotiate a peace treaty, for which the allies would make no concessions and accept no conditions.

April 1814

In the night of 5-6 April, after long attempts at negotiations with the allies, Napoleon accepted defeat and wrote out a short text declaring that he had abdicated as follows: “[…] the Emperor Napoleon, true to his oath, declares that he renounces for himself and his heirs the thrones of France and of Italy, and that there is not personal sacrifice, even that of his life, which he is not ready to perform in the interests of France.” He gave this to Caulaincourt to transmit to the allies explaining that it should not be published until the treaty (the future Treaty of Fontainebleau, to be signed and published on 11 April) had established the rules for the abdication. On the same day (5 April), the Provisional government headed by Talleyrand, sent a document, ‘a constitutional charter', to the Senate. The text took its inspiration from the constitution of 1791 guaranteeing civil and political liberties but importantly established a sharing of legislative power between the King and the Chambres. It also noted that “Louis Stanislas Xavier de France, brother of the last King” was “freely” called to the throne of France by the “French People”. The stage was being set for the return of the Bourbon monarchy to France.
10 April, the extremely bloody (and useless) Battle of Toulouse, described by the cavalryman George Woodberry, an eyewitness, as a “day of carnage for all”, took place. Soult had fought Wellington there because he refused to believe that Napoleon had abdicated. The combined French and British losses for the day of 8,000 dead or wounded marked the military end of the First Empire.

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