Russian, Austrian, and Prussian troops in Leipzig. Painting by Alexander Sauerweid
The Ill-fated Battle of Leipzig
From October 16 to 19, 1813, reduced to 180,000 men, the Grand Armeé occupied a defensive position at Leipzig, confronting 360,000 combatants of the Coalition.
Napoleon’s mode of operations was unusual. To give the Coalition the impression that he would fight without retreat in an ultimate battle without quarter, Napoleon had concentrated all his forces in the city. He based his dispositions along the river Eister, at whose bridge he planned a surprise disengagement.
Conforming to the frontal tactics that Napoleon had enticed them to follow, the Coalition partners focused all their forces concentrically around the city. Their alignment was as follows: in the south, Schwarzenberg’s Austrians; to the east, Bennigsen’s Russians; on the northeast, Bernadotte’s Swedes; and to the northwest, Blücher’s Prussians.
Whether through a mistake in tactics, poor coordination of effort, or simple presumption, no unit blocked the escape route toward Erfurt on the west bank of the Eister.
Without even waiting for the completion of the Coalition’s deployments, on the morning of October 16 Schwarzenberg attacked in force. Throughout the day, assaults and counter-assaults succeeded each other in hand-to-hand fighting. The Austrians were contained and even forced back.
The Coalition members learned their lesson from this. Thereafter, they decided to wait for all units to be assembled before renewing the attack. They spent the entire day of October 17 achieving this concentration.
Beginning at daybreak on October 18, the Coalition armies launched a general offensive. They failed to penetrate the position. In the afternoon, however, two brigades of Saxons and one brigade of Luxembourgers defected to the Coalition. Napoleon had to intervene in person with the Guard to reestablish the position, but not without difficulty. The fighting climaxed at night. The Coalition troops had not advanced a step, but the considerable casualties they suffered had calmed them sufficiently to allow the planned French disengagement under good conditions.
The retreat began at 2:00 a.m. on October 19, secretly, by the bridge over the Eister. The Coalition members did not perceive anything until daybreak. Then they quickly resumed their general attack. This resulted in the tragically premature destruction of the bridge, caused by the panic of the non-commissioned officer charged with destruction. Fifteen thousand French soldiers had not yet crossed, and found themselves thus trapped in the city. Many of them drowned while attempting to escape across the river. Without this incident, the Grand Armeé would have succeeded in withdrawing completely. It had suffered 15,000 killed and wounded and as many prisoners. The Coalition losses reached 50,000 killed or wounded.
Leaving aside the disappointment concerning the bridge, the Battle of Leipzig was thus a relative success for Napoleon. One hundred twenty thousand Frenchmen had escaped from the grip of an enemy three times as large and in the process had inflicted heavy losses. By ordinary military logic, no one should have escaped.
In the ensuing days, these harassed escapees would repulse 50,000 Austro-Bavarians at the Hanau pass before returning to their home country at the beginning of November.
Britain Torpedoes the Last Hope of Peace
What were the Coalition’s intentions? The sovereigns or their representatives gathered at Frankfurt to reach agreement on a common policy. Opinions were divided. Undoubtedly influenced by the Franco-Austrian family ties, Metternich proposed the least extreme position: the return of France to its 1792 borders, and the abdication of the emperor in favor of his son, i.e., without a Bourbon restoration. Russia and Prussia were equally in favor of an abdication without restoration, but demanded the 1789 borders instead. In Sweden’s name, Bernadotte proposed himself as a candidate to succeed Napoleon! Britain again showed itself to be the most intransigent, calling for the 1789 borders plus the restoration of the Bourbons it was sheltering and counted on making into puppet sovereigns.
At first, Metternich’s option appeared to be successful. On November 9, he used the Count de Saint-Aignan, a prisoner of war, to send a verbal message to Napoleon. He made this proposal in the presence of the Russian and British representatives, who raised no objection. He also suggested that Caulaincourt should negotiate for the French side.
As soon as he learned of this peace overture of November 1813, Napoleon leaped at the opportunity. He immediately informed the Coalition that he would send Caulaincourt as negotiator at a peace conference and asked his opponents to fix the date and place.
Named minister of exterior relations in Maret’s place, Caulaincourt wrote to Metternich on December 1:
It is with a lively sense of satisfaction that I am charged and authorized by my master the Emperor to declare to your excellency that His Majesty agrees to the basis that Monsieur de Saint-Aignan has communicated. These involve great sacrifices on the part of France, but His Majesty will make them without regret.
Thus, to restore peace, the emperor of the French officially agreed to abandon his crown so that France would retain both its new regime and its natural frontiers, two conditions that could not be more reasonable and legitimate. The miracle of peace almost appeared possible. Regrettably, once again it was nothing but a mirage.
The cabinet in London disavowed its representative to Frankfurt. The cabal of French émigrés at the court of Saint Petersburg, filled with hatred, persuaded the tsar to reverse his position. The British point of view carried the day. At its insistence, the Coalition partners renounced further negotiations and once again chose war. Yet, they felt forced to justify their warmongering in the eyes of public opinion. They therefore had recourse to a foul imposture to make Napoleon shoulder the responsibility. On December 1, they had not yet received Napoleon’s official agreement to abdicate. To give the illusion of a negative response on his part, they backdated their December 4 declaration of war to December 1. Metternich’s Machiavellianism joined with the perfidy of the British cabinet to create a minor masterpiece of ignominy.
To compound their perversity, the official decision of the Coalition on December 4 was printed in 20,000 copies of a propaganda tract and distributed across France. It read in part:
The allied powers are not making war on France but rather on that preponderant influence that, to the detriment of both the Empire and of France, the Emperor Napoleon has too long exercised outside the limits of his empire. The sovereigns wish France to be great, strong, and happy. The powers confirm to the Empire a territorial extent that it had never known under its kings.
Knowingly confusing the effect with the cause, this insidious monument of disinformation attempted to separate the French from their emperor. The “preponderant influence” of which it accused him was due only to the fury with which the Coalition had attacked him as the incarnation of the new France. The people were not deceived by this mystification.
This fallacious concept of differentiating between a bad Napoleon and an estimable France would be revived later in the inept image of a genial Bonaparte and an odious Napoleon. Anyone who does not recognize the functional unity and continuity between Bonaparte and Napoleon has no understanding of his personality.
The attitude of the emperor of Austria antagonized even his daughter Maria-Louisa, who so informed him in an unambiguous letter:
You cannot know how painful is the thought that you could be involved in a war with the Emperor, your relation, when you both have such characters that you should be friends. May God soon grant us peace! The Emperor desires it, as do all of his people. Yet, one cannot make peace without negotiating, and up until now it appears that your side has not been willing to do so. I am sure that the English are responsible for this.
Once again, the Coalition members had erred in their presumption. They would quickly learn by painful experience the confidence that Napoleon still enjoyed from the people if not, unfortunately, from the supposed “elites.”
In that month of November 1813, France was dramatically isolated and withdrawn behind its natural frontiers. Yet Napoleon had just demonstrated that the French army remained potent. In the interior, the political structure began to loosen and even to betray the emperor, who was admittedly much weakened but still determined. He continued to benefit from the total fidelity of the vast majority of Frenchmen. This should have made the Coalition’s members reflect and incline them to moderation. An opportunity for peace existed. Once again, Great Britain stifled this opportunity at birth.
Shamelessly violating Swiss neutrality, the Coalition armies invaded France in the first days of 1814. On January 3, they entered Montbéliard. The following day, they were at Nancy. On the 15th, Schwarzenberg occupied Langres. Four days later, Dijon fell. Almost everywhere, the invaders indulged in atrocities. Patriotic peasants attempted to oppose them by organizing guerrilla operations despite limited means and no support from the notables. They did not hesitate to fight with their scythes and pitchforks. With organization and leadership, this movement had significant operational possibilities.
Once again, Napoleon was expected to choose between capitulating unconditionally, contrary to his oath as emperor, and war. And, once again, he would show himself worthy of his reputation as a great captain.
When Napoleon left Paris for his armies on January 25, 1814, the situation of France appeared desperate. The Coalition surrounded it on four sides with more than 400,000 combatants. To the south, Wellington’s British army prepared to cross the Pyrenees. To the north, Bernadotte, at the head of 150,000 Russo-Prussians, was on the frontier. He delegated his command to generals Bulow and Wintzingerode, not daring to fight in person the French army inside France itself. Was this a belated scruple, or fear of being executed by his fellow citizens? To the northeast, Blücher’s Army of Silesia with 80,000 Russo-Prussians had crossed the Meuse and was advancing toward the Marne. To the southeast, Schwarzenberg’s Army of Bohemia occupied the plateau of Langres with 185,000 Austro-Prussians.
Napoleon could only muster 110,000 first-line soldiers supported by several courageous units of the National Guard. Moreover, many were very young, with some barely 16 years old. They had been burdened with the nickname “Marie-Louise” because their enrollment had been authorized under a decree signed by the empress, and would earn the admiration of the “greybeards” of the Guard, even through they did not have peach fuzz as yet. The tsar himself rendered homage to their bravery.
Yet Napoleon could not count on the 20,000 men of the opportunist Augereau in Lyon nor on Eugene’s Army of Italy, which had more effect staying where it was than moving to France. Once again, he had to compensate for a crushing numerical inferiority by a maelstrom of rapid marches and countermarches, by dazzling maneuvers and countermaneuvers, allowing no respite to the enemy and appearing where he was not expected.
By January 26, Napoleon had overwhelmed a Russian division of Blücher’s at Saint Didier. On February 1, a clash occurred at La Rothiere that proved costly because he lacked his usual numerical superiority. On February 10 at Champaubert he annihilated a complete Russian corps of Blücher’s; peasants pursued the fugitives.
Rushing to Montmirail, Napoleon defeated another Russian corps on February 11. Decidedly, the Russians were not celebrating. The next day, he chased a Prussian corps from Chateau-Thierry. Here again, numerous peasants participated in the fight, armed with old muskets or simple pitchforks.
On February 14, a new and shining victory occurred at Vauchamps. Overpowered by the “French furor” that had allowed him no rest for 15 days, Blücher suffered very heavy losses: 6,000 killed or wounded and 8,000 prisoners. After four defeats in five days, the Army of Silesia was practically out of action. Now it was the turn of the Army of Bohemia!
This army was advancing southward in the direction of Moret. Its northern flank guard was surprised at Mormant on February 17. The cost was 6,000 prisoners including several generals, 15 cannon, and 50 caissons. Again the Russians had failed. The next day, an Austrian corps suffered defeat at Montereau, losing 6,000 men including another general, 15 guns, and six colors. Troyes was liberated on February 24 amidst an indescribable popular celebration.
Crippled by this avalanche of reverses, the Coalition members fell back everywhere. Their will wavered, their cohesion began to fail. Had the moment for negotiations returned?
Napoleon remained open to that as always. On February 26, he received Prince Wenceslas de Lichtenstein, sent to request a suspension of hostilities. Napoleon agreed in principle but did not wish to repeat the trickery of Pleiswitz in the previous year. He sent General Flahaut to ask for details of Schwarzenberg and to confirm that he wished to open negotiations on the basis of the Frankfurt conditions. Operations would not cease before the start of negotiations. Matters unfortunately remained there.
Meanwhile, pseudo-peace talks occurred at Chatillon, conducted on the French side by Caulaincourt, who had received full powers to negotiate on the reasonable basis of Frankfurt. Usually optimistic, Caulaincourt quickly sang a different tune. He sent Napoleon the following informative bulletin:
What I know with certainty is that I am dealing here with men who are not at all sincere. To make concessions only encourages them to make more demands, without being able to foresee where they will stop and without obtaining any result.
This from the ardent partisan of negotiations, who finally understood!
Sensing that his Coalition partners were vacillating, the hyper-Francophone British minister Lord Robert Castlereagh hurried from London, pockets bulging with gold. A conference occurred at Chaumont, where on March 1 a treaty was signed that renewed and extended the alliance for 20 years. Austria, Russia, and Prussia each promised to furnish 150,000 men to the Coalition. They contracted to accept only the frontiers of 1789 and not those of 1792. As the price of their cooperation, the three powers shared a treasure of 150 million francs.
The stiffening of the Coalition despite its military defeats was undoubtedly due to the French traitors who continued to provide assurance and would soon manifest themselves.
The war thus inexorably resumed.
Contrasting with the prudence of Schwarzenberg, who hesitated to give up his secure positions on the plateau of Langres, the seething Blücher, who had lived only to avenge Jena, resumed the offensive toward Paris via the valley of the Aisne, with the support of the Army of the North.
Napoleon therefore conceived a strategic maneuver of great scope, consisting of defeating Blücher in the region of Soissons, rallying the garrisons of the north, pressing toward those of the east, and then attacking the area of the Army of Bohemia in liaison with an organized peasant guerrilla force. He also hoped that Augereau, reinforced by Eugene, could form the other branch of the pincers near Lyon.
Failures of execution by some demoralized generals and the disobedience of Augereau and of Eugene would compromise the execution of this plan. The capitulation of Paris by treaty would ruin it.
On March 3, the surrender of Soissons without resistance saved Blücher, who linked up with the Army of the North. After this reinforcement, the battles of Craonne on March 6 and Laon the next day were costly and indecisive.
In liberating Reims on March 13, Napoleon drove a wedge between the Army of Silesia and that of Bohemia. This latter force had renewed the offensive and threatened the southern wing of the French dispositions. Napoleon had to deviate from his path to reestablish the situation. Schwarzenberg withdrew precipitately to the Aube and reassembled all of his forces. He then attacked violently at Arcis-sur-Aube on March 20, where he was with difficulty contained.
Still following his progression into the enemy rear, Napoleon reached Saint-Didier on March 23 and gained a final victory over the Russians. This proved to be the farthest point of his offensive. The collapse of his own rear then destroyed his spirit.
Defense of Clichy during the battle of Paris. The artist depicts the defense of Paris on the 30th of March 1814. In the centre, Marshal Moncey gives his orders to goldsmith Claude Odiot, colonel of the national guard, for whom the painting was made.
A capital event had taken place. Talleyrand and the royalists had called upon the Coalition to seize Paris, guaranteeing its capitulation without resistance. It was true that, on January 1, the future Louis XVIII had sent his “subjects” an infamous proclamation: “Receive the allied generals as friends, open the gates of your cities to them, avoid the blows that a criminal and pointless resistance would cost you, and welcome their entry into France with cries of joy.”
On March 25 at Fere-Champenoise, the Coalition inflicted a serious reverse on the troops assigned to defend Paris. Caught off balance, Napoleon was constrained to carry aid to the capital at top speed. Yet, he arrived too late. On March 30, near Juvisy, he learned that Marmont had signed a capitulation for the entire garrison of Paris, which was authorized to leave the capital. The inconsequential Joseph, who had been named lieutenant general of the empire for precisely the mission “not to abandon Paris without a fight,” had agreed with Marmont.
The Coalition forces made their entrance into Paris on March 31, 1814, to the applause of the wealthy quarters. The noblewomen exceeded decency so far as to mount on the croppers of the horses of Cossack officers. Talleyrand accommodated the tsar in his own hotel and became head of a provisional government to prepare the restoration.
Having withdrawn to Fontainebleau, Napoleon had not yet had his final say. He still controlled 70,000 soldiers who demonstrated a touching fidelity to him, crying “To Paris, to Paris!” He had already formed a concept of operations to reconquer the capital in coordination with an uprising of the Parisian population, and he had previously recovered from equally critical situations.
However, his marshals—tired, demoralized, opportunistic, and sedentary—failed him on April 4. At least they attempted to save the regime by negotiating an abdication in favor of his son, the king of Rome. The treason of Marmont, who deserted to the enemy with his corps on April 4, dealt the final blow to the Empire and restored the monarchy. Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba.