Russian, Austrian, and Prussian troops in Leipzig. Painting by
The Ill-fated Battle
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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