Napoleon and his staff are retuning from Soissons after the battle of Laon.

Although his forces were outnumbered by the Coalition armies closing in on him, Napoleon’s campaign of 1814 was one of the finest demonstrations of his strategic and tactical skill. There were several significant battles, almost all of which Napoleon won against the odds, but perhaps the most prominent feature of the fighting was his ability to inspire his men to continue to resist despite crippling losses, punishing marches and diminishing supplies.

Driven out of Russia in 1812, and forced to relinquish control of central Europe the following year, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, faced the prospect of defeat as his Sixth Coalition enemies (formed by Austria, Prussia, Sweden, Britain and certain German states) massed on the borders. To defend the 300-mile (480-km) frontier of France that ran along the Rhine, Napoleon could muster no more than 80,000 ragged and exhausted men. Inside the German states were 100,000 French troops, but they were scattered or besieged, unable to reach France ahead of their enemies. Directly across the Rhine, facing Napoleon, were 300,000 Coalition invasion troops, consisting of the armies of Russia, Austria and Prussia. On the southern borders, General Sir Arthur Wellesley (soon to become the Duke of Wellington) was driving the French back across the Franco-Spanish frontier, while Napoleon’s troops in Italy were outmanoeuvred and unable to fall back to protect the homeland. Former French allies among the German states and the Netherlands were also beginning to desert Napoleon.

Napoleon set about raising more men to meet the invasion, with the energy that had made him so famous in the 1790s. He called up 900,000 conscripts, the French National Guard, the gendarmerie and even forestry officials. He demanded that his staff find the necessary arms and equipment for this hastily formed force, and considered issuing pikes where there were not enough muskets. He increased the size of his elite Imperial Guard, stripping the most experienced men from old regiments to give himself a reliable core among the legions of new and untried recruits. Napoleon, the great advocate of mass in battle, now faced armies far larger than his own and he was desperate to balance the odds. There was a chorus of propaganda, exhorting greater efforts for the defence of la Patrie (‘the fatherland’); he recalled the drafts of troops that were en route to Italy and Spain, and conscripted young men who were not due to serve for another two years.

However, Napoleon did not meet his targets. Of the 900,000 called up, only 120,000 mustered for service. A war-weary population refused to pay taxes. There were not enough guns or horses for the cavalry and the artillery. Worse, Joachim Murat, Marshal of France, who was at that time stationed in the Kingdom of Naples, went over to the allies. This defection ended any chance Napoleon might have had to repeat his strategic success of 1797, when he had boldly swung through northern Italy to defeat the Austrians and break the allied Coalition. Even Napoleon’s diplomacy failed: he had offered to restore King Ferdinand VII of Spain to his throne, hoping this move would split the allies in acrimonious debate, but the plan failed. Despite his numerous disadvantages, Napoleon continued to make strategic calculations that relied on his military prowess as a commander. When he was told he must restore the Netherlands to their independence and guarantee the peace – which represented an opportunity to rescue the situation – he rejected the demand. Even though fortune was against him, Napoleon preferred to fight his enemies to a standstill and impose his own terms from a position of strength. Thus, the Coalition invasion began in January 1814, with three converging thrusts aimed at Paris, and the French set about preparing to meet the overwhelming onslaught.

Napoleon planned to defeat each enemy army in detail. Karl Philipp, the Prince of Schwarzenberg and Austrian commander, had 210,000 men crossing the Upper Rhine, while Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte (a former French marshal, who had turned against Napoleon to become king of Sweden) brought 60,000 soldiers through the Netherlands. The Prussians, led by Marshal Gebhard Blücher, marched with 75,000 men through Lorraine. In response, Napoleon sent a corps of 30,000 inexperienced troops against one wing of Blücher’s army on 29 January 1814. The Prussians were obliged to withdraw when threatened from a flank, but Blücher counter-attacked at La Rothière on 1 February, massing 116,000 Coalition troops against Napoleon’s 40,000. Napoleon tried to extricate the army but was forced to fight in the drifting snow until darkness allowed his men to slip away. A blizzard made it difficult to maintain direction, and some units resorted to hand-to-hand fighting with bayonets when the wet conditions left their gunpowder damp. The short but aggressive fight had cost the two sides 6,000 casualties and, by all calculations, Napoleon seemed to be beaten. The allies resumed their march on Paris with some confidence.

Then, contrary to all expectations, Napoleon launched a lightning series of battles known as the Six Days’ Campaign in a deteriorating strategic situation and against much greater numbers. Starting on 10 February, he struck against the Prussians, who were strung out in an extended line of march. He attacked General Zakhar Olsufiev at Champaubert, east of Paris, inflicting 4,000 casualties on a force that had taken the field with 5,000 men.

On 11 February, Napoleon immediately marched on two more elements of the allied army at Montmirail, namely the corps of General Ludwig Yorck and General Dmitri Sacken. Initially Napoleon had only 10,500 men available (consisting of the Imperial Guard with a few conscripts) against the 18,000 in Sacken’s command. But stationing some men to watch for the arrival of Yorck, Napoleon called for all available reinforcements until he had mustered a total of 20,000 men, then he launched an all-out attack. Sacken was driven back, but as the battle progressed, the Coalition forces under Yorck arrived and Napoleon’s plan appeared to be in jeopardy. Then, Napoleon’s corps commander, Marshal Édouard Mortier, arrived with reinforcements just in time to check and then drive back Yorck’s force.

The next day, Napoleon pursued Yorck’s rearguard as far as Château-Thierry on the Marne River. There, Michel Ney, Napoleon’s most courageous marshal, made a furious assault, pierced the allied lines and captured heights above and beyond them. The attack was so impetuous that two regiments of Russian cavalry were cut off and compelled to surrender, although the Prussian infantry got away thanks to the covering fire of their artillery. Remarkably, in three days of fighting, Napoleon had suffered only 3,450 killed in action, while the allies had incurred losses of over 10,000. To ensure a decisive victory over the Prussians, Napoleon made one final thrust against Blücher, intending thereafter to march against Schwarzenberg.

Napoleon had set out to locate Blücher at 0300 hours on 14 February with the Imperial Guard and the cavalry in his vanguard. The leading Prussian corps, under Lieutenant General Friedrich von Kleist, numbered 20,000 men and had clashed with French outposts at Vauchamps as it sought out Napoleon’s main body of men. The Prussian cavalry was driven off, but they secured a prisoner who informed von Kleist and Blücher that Napoleon’s main force was indeed in the area. While the allies were deliberating, Napoleon was already quickly gathering his formations to concentrate 25,000 men for yet another decisive battle. When it became apparent to Blücher that the Prussians did not have local superiority in numbers, he began to withdraw. Marshal Emmanuel de Grouchy, leading the bulk of Napoleon’s cavalry, attempted to swing behind the Prussians and cut off their line of retreat, but the broken ground slowed the manoeuvre so that the Prussians were able to fight their way back and Blücher escaped. Nevertheless, the confused withdrawal cost the allies another 7,000 casualties and 16 guns, while French losses numbered only 6,000.

Despite these tactical victories, Paris was still threatened by a vast Austrian force, and Napoleon had to force-march for two days to catch up with the allies on the Seine. His exhausted men had covered 60 miles (95 km) in mid-winter conditions, and, on arrival, they were pitched straight into battle. On 17 February at Nangis, the Coalition corps of the Russian General Peter Wittgenstein was surprised and routed, throwing the Bavarians, who were in support of them, into disorder. The Austrians attempted to make a withdrawal, despite their greater numbers, leaving a covering force under the Prince of Württemberg at Montereau. Any hope of an organized withdrawal was thwarted, however, when the French opened up with a massed battery of guns, then launched columns of infantry at the town, which fell after a sharp fight. Another 2,500 Frenchmen lay dead or dying on the field, but Schwarzenberg had been persuaded to hold his main force 40 miles (65 km) back, and Napoleon had bought himself a little more time.

Nevertheless, Napoleon soon learnt that Blücher had recovered and the Prussians were on the move again, meaning the French would have to switch their axis a third time. Napoleon detached a portion of his force to delay Schwarzenberg, then hastened after Blücher who was within 25 miles (40 km) of the capital. But Schwarzenberg understood the relentless logic of time, numbers and position: as soon as Napoleon left to tackle the Prussians, he resumed his advance on Paris. Napoleon’s covering force was defeated at Bar-sur-Aube on 27 February.

Blücher was advancing along the River Marne with 85,000 men when Napoleon caught up with him. The Prussian Field Marshal had anticipated an impetuous attack, and planned to pin Napoleon down long enough for the Russian General Ferdinand von Wintzingerode to outflank him with overwhelming numbers. But Napoleon moved too fast for him. Pinning Blücher at Craonne, the French executed a dramatic flank assault on 7 March. The old Marshal was forced to withdraw, albeit in good order, inflicting some 5,000 casualties on Napoleon’s dwindling forces. Blücher still hoped to outwit his adversary. At Laon, on 9 March, Blücher halted and deployed his entire force against Napoleon, who could only muster half their numbers with a force that consisted of thousands of raw conscripts. Boldly, Napoleon sent 9,500 men under Marshal Auguste de Marmont on a flanking move, while his main body made a frontal assault.

Marmont’s inexperienced men struggled to get into position and were in turn outflanked by Yorck’s corps, which had been carefully positioned in advance. Marmont was soon in trouble, trying to extricate his men under fire. It was only the defiant stand of a company of guardsmen at the Festieux Defile against Prussian cavalry, and a voluntary counter-attack by Colonel Etienne Fabvier’s battalion (supported by just two cannon) that saved the situation. Napoleon continued to hammer away until evening, but he had no troops available for any further manoeuvres. Still his men followed him doggedly. He withdrew, leaving behind another 6,000 killed and wounded, and made his way to Soissons.

There, Napoleon learnt of the fall of Rheims and the continued allied advance on Paris. Although suffering a variety of ailments and worn out by weeks of furious preparation and campaigning, Napoleon hurled himself at the task of retaking the old city in an attempt to sever the allies’ line of communication, and thereby halt their move towards Paris. On 13 March, Napoleon appeared before Rheims and routed the Russian corps under Emmanuel St Priest. The move, brilliantly concealed and speedily executed, had given him a position astride the line of communication of both Schwarzenberg and Blücher, just as he had hoped. Exhibiting the tough good humour of his old campaigns, he joked: ‘I am still the man I was at Wagram and Austerlitz.’

Schwarzenberg, who had intercepted Napoleon’s dispatches and therefore knew his plans, nevertheless decided to continue his advance on Paris. This forced the French to chase him. On 20 March, with his troop numbers dwindling from fatigue and combat, Napoleon struck at the Austrians near Arcis-sur-Aube. The Austrians spent the night reinforcing their advance guard so that, as dawn broke, 80,000 Coalition troops confronted Napoleon’s remaining 28,000 men. Schwarzenberg initially hoped Napoleon would attack, but when Napoleon seemed inactive, he felt unsure of himself and allowed the French to filter back across the River Aube. Realizing that Napoleon was getting away, the Austrians belatedly launched an attack in the afternoon, but Napoleon and his tired little army escaped.

On 25 March, Napoleon’s rearguard (under Marshals Mortier and Marmont) was defeated in the Battle of Fère-Champenoise. The French National Guard gallantly went down fighting in the action, losing 3,500 out of their original strength of 4,000. Napoleon’s force was no longer sufficiently strong to defend the capital, or to defeat the allied armies in the field. Nevertheless, the Paris National Guard made a brave stand at Clichy until driven back to Montmartre. Marmont and his 500 remaining troops held on for as long as possible, but the allied numbers were overwhelming and he accepted defeat on the outskirts of Paris. Lieutenant Viaux of the 2nd Grenadiers of the Guards, an invalid, gathered twenty comrades at Montmartre for a defiant, but ultimately hopeless last stand in which they all lost their lives. Outside the capital, Napoleon and his guardsmen were still spoiling for a fight, but Ney and the other senior officers (along with the surviving members of the army) had had enough. Paris was occupied by 145,000 allied troops and Napoleon, deciding to reject the offers from his loyalists to start a guerrilla war, abdicated.

Even then, Napoleon was not finished. With each of the European allies ranged against him, still discussing their plans for a post-Napoleonic ‘restored’ continent, Napoleon escaped from his island prison on Elba less than a year after being incarcerated there. On 1 March 1815, he landed in France with just 200 men: the most loyal of his grognards from the old Imperial Guard. Even though French civilians were cautious and sometimes hostile to Napoleon’s return, there was little support for the royalists of the House of Bourbon either. The French army was perhaps the key to the whole venture, and Napoleon knew it. Confronted at Grenoble, Napoleon appealed to his soldiers’ loyalty and was received with great enthusiasm. The little force grew to 14,000 as it advanced on Paris. Veterans set off from their towns and villages to rejoin the ‘Eagles’, while some of the senior officers (conscious that they had betrayed their Emperor in 1814 to join the new Bourbon regime) fled into exile. Within weeks Napoleon had raised an army of 124,000 fit to take the field, with 100,000 in depots and 300,000 in training. The allies were forced to respond, recreate their own armies, advance on the French frontiers and again march against Napoleon.

Napoleon inflicted a temporary defeat on Blücher at Ligny on 16 June 1815, before turning to confront the Anglo-Dutch-Belgian army at Waterloo two days later. Even this battle, Napoleon’s final defeat, was, in the words of the victorious commander, the Duke of Wellington: ‘the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life’. Napoleon had come very close to resurrecting his entire political apparatus and might, in time, have intimidated his rivals into some sort of accommodation both in domestic and foreign affairs. His resilience, his capacity for decisive action and his sheer determination against all the odds serve to make Napoleon an inspirational figure. In 1814, Napoleon had proved that he possessed the tactical skill and loyalty of his troops by confronting and defeating vast numbers of enemy forces. Through speed and manoeuvre he was able to outmarch and outwit his adversaries. Although Napoleon was unable to alter the deteriorating strategic situation, it is remarkable that he was able to command such a presence among his troops. Critics continue to dissect his errors and personal flaws, but his achievements, particularly in 1814, remain undiminished. Wellington, who believed that Napoleon should have kept his forces concentrated in 1814, nevertheless concluded that the Six Days’ Campaign that year was all ‘very brilliant, probably the ablest of all his performances’.


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