Napoleon’s Armies – Fall Back to France 1814

Napoleon’s retreat to the Rhine was on the whole a remarkably successful operation. On the one hand the Allies were still sufficiently daunted by the magic of the Emperor’s reputation to conduct their pursuit of his columns respectfully, while Schwarzenberg was not a general of sufficient caliber to trap the French before they could find sanctuary. For his part, Napoleon was retiring along his main set of communications towards Frankfurt and Mainz, absorbing the supplies and munitions of his depots on the way. On October 23 some 100,000 French troops (many of them in ragged condition, it is true, but by no means in a state of utter dissolution) reached Erfurt, and much new equipment was issued from its huge arsenals before the retreat was recommenced on the 24th. The discipline of some units began to break down, and large numbers began to maraud, but apart from nuisance-raids by bands of Cossacks, light cavalry and partisans, the retreat was not seriously interrupted. However, Blücher’s army was marching westward on a parallel route to the north, Schwarzenberg’s Austrians and Russians were pressing in upon the rear, several sharp rear-guard actions had taken place over the previous week, and so it behoved Napoleon to continue his retreat toward the Rhine.

As the days passed, there was an inevitable increase in the disorganization of the Grande Armée. An Allied observer noted that “the numbers of corpses and dead horses increased every day. Thousands of soldiers, sinking from hunger and fatigue, remained behind, unable to reach a hospital. The woods for several miles round were full of stragglers and worn out and sick soldiers. Guns and wagons were found everywhere.”40

Nevertheless, there was a spark of fire still left in the defeated army, as was convincingly demonstrated in the last days of October. A force of 43,000 Bavarians and Austrians under General Wrede, newly committed to the Allied cause, had rushed northward from the Danube into Franconia to block the French line of retreat. In due course this force reached Hanau, a few miles to the east of Frankfurt-on-Main, Napoleon’s next sanctuary. Through a complete misappreciation of the situation, Wrede came to the conclusion that the Emperor and the main body of his army were retiring along the more northerly road to Coblenz, and that his force would only be faced by a dispirited flank column of 20,000 men at the most. Confident of success after several days of snappy skirmishing, the Bavarian general placed his troops in hastily selected positions on the 30th, with the River Kinzig behind his center and his right wing in isolation to its south with only a single bridge linking it to the main body.

Initially Napoleon had only the 17,000 men of Macdonald’s infantry and Sébastiani’s cavalry available to deal with this obstruction, but the French were able to advance to close contact virtually unseen owing to the dense forests lying to the east of Wrede’s position. The Emperor soon decided to attack the Bavarian left with all available manpower. By midday, the woods facing the Bavarian center had been cleared by Victor and Macdonald, and General Drouot soon thereafter found a track through the trees towards Wrede’s left capable of taking cannon. Within three hours, Grenadiers of the Old Guard had cleared the approaches to the French target, and Drouot assembled 50 guns backed by Sébastiani and the Guard cavalry. A brisk cannonade soon silenced Wrede’s 28 cannon, and then the French horsemen swept forward against Wrede’s cavalry guarding his left. The Bavarians gave way before the onslaught. Attacked in flank by the wheeling French cavalry, Wrede’s center was forced to try and cut its way out to the left, skirting the banks of the Kinzig, and suffered a heavy toll of casualties in the process. His right wing became hopelessly involved trying to cross the single bridge, and proved incapable of influencing the issue of the main battle. Hundreds were drowned in the Kinzig before Wrede was able to rally the remnants of his forces on a line running from the Lamboi bridge to the township of Hanau. The next day the French occupied Hanau itself with scant difficulty.

Napoleon had no intention of wasting further time with Wrede; as the main road to Frankfurt was now reopened, the bulk of the French continued westward without delay, leaving a rear guard to prevent Wrede from attempting anything further. The battle and the skirmishes that preceded and followed it cost Wrede over 9,000 men. The French losses in action were considerably lower, but between October 28 and 31 probably as many as 10,000 stragglers fell into Allied hands.

Nevertheless, the main body of the French army reached Frankfurt on 2nd November. Here they were virtually safe, for their rear bases at Mainz and the mighty barrier of the Rhine lay less than 20 miles away. However, there is no possibility of minimizing the scale of the French disaster. Although Davout was still firmly positioned on the Lower Elbe, the French Campaign of 1813 had ended in complete failure. Perhaps 70,000 combatants and 40,000 stragglers reached the Rhine in safety, but almost 400,000 troops had been lost. It was true that no less than 100,000 of these still remained scattered in isolated garrisons and detachments from Danzig to Dresden, but there was no longer the least chance of their surviving or being saved, and one by one these outposts began to capitulate. St. Cyr and the Dresden garrison (two corps in strength), after conducting a gallant defense, were induced to surrender on terms on November II. General Schwarzenberg subsequently refused to ratify the agreement, but by then St. Cyr could do nothing but surrender unconditionally. The Allies later played the same disreputable trick against the garrisons of Danzig and Torgau. So the Campaign of 1813 came to its close, with Napoleon and a remnant of his army preparing to defend the natural frontiers of France, his Empire in Germany vanished forever.

What reasons underlay this new cataclysm? Here it is possible to summarize only the main factors involved. We have already noted how the quality of the French forces (both horse and foot) was markedly inferior in quality to the armies of earlier years, but this was not in itself decisive. Far more significant were the deficiencies of the French command system. These were partly due to Napoleon’s shortcomings, and partly to the weaknesses of his subordinates. In the period following the breakdown of the armistice, Napoleon was trying to coordinate the control of half a million men—a task which was simply beyond the powers of any one man with only the aid of the rudimentary communications systems of the day, as the experiences of 1812 should have taught him.

As a result—again as in 1812—the marshals inevitably found themselves bearing greater responsibilities than they were used to on distant sectors of the front. That they practically always muffed their opportunities was partly due to Napoleon’s failure to train up his subordinates for the exigencies of independent command, and partly to the rapidly dwindling enthusiasm of the marshalate. To compensate his underlings for their complete obedience and subservience the Emperor had showered them with riches, titles and estates; by 1813, the recipients were not wholly unnaturally becoming desirous of enjoying these benefits in a more peaceful setting. Many of the disappointments of 1813 can be explained in these terms.

The rank and file of the extemporized French armies achieved wonders on at least three occasions during the long campaign, but these successes to some extent contributed to Napoleon’s undoing for he came increasingly to rely on his “Marie-Louises” and decrepit veterans achieving the impossible time after time. Many of the Emperor’s strategic plans were as cunning as of old, but he lacked the means to implement them successfully—and he was very slow in appreciating this. His raw troops could not march and fight incessantly without adequate supplies, and his staff could not operate efficiently without adequate intelligence. Even the Emperor’s funds of energy, both physical and mental, were showing signs of exhaustion; his acceptance of the armistice after two victories is probably one sign of this. Napoleon, in fact, was relying on an unlikely combination of miracles and errors to achieve his total victory; miracles of performance and endurance on the part of his men—errors of judgment and coordination on the part of his foes. Neither lived up to his most optimistic expectations.

The Allies certainly made mistakes, and several times as we have seen these brought them to the brink of disaster. Their command system was extremely chaotic and poorly coordinated. Selfish national interests often replaced the common weal during their incessant councils; personal rivalries and jealousies dogged almost every move. Nevertheless, after the sharp lessons of Lützen and Bautzen in the first half of the campaign, they somehow hit upon the correct strategy for bringing Napoleon to account By employing their vast numbers of men and cannon against the secondary sectors of the French front and by avoiding as far as was possible a direct head-on clash with “the Ogre” himself, they disrupted plan after plan and severely shook the balance of French operations as a whole. There were times (as at Dresden) when they inadvisedly reverted to their old methods and suffered predictable defeat in consequence, but once they had driven Napoleon and his tiring lieutenants back on Leipzig and successfully linked up their four armies (those of Silesia, Bohemia, the North and Poland), the game was practically in their pockets. Napoleon fought with all his old tenacity, ferocity and skill, but in the end sheer numbers told in the Allied favor.

Napoleon, indeed, was guilty of several severe political and military miscalculations which between them underlay his failure. He tended to despise his opponents; this was justifiable in the case of Bernadotte, but he completely underestimated the degree of Blücher’s hatred for him or of the Tsar’s persistence. He never expected that his father-in-law, the Emperor of Austria, would turn fully against him; he never appreciated how sick were the German States of the French yoke, or how unreal were his expectations of military support from those quarters. He left thousands of invaluable fighting men and several of his best generals south of the Pyrenees. But worst of all, he never realized that there was a new spirit abroad in Europe; he still believed he was dealing with the old feudal monarchies which in fact his earlier victories had largely swept away. France was no longer the only country to be imbued with a genuine national inspiration or equipped with a truly national army. France’s foes had at last learned valuable lessons from their earlier defeats, both political and military, and were now learning how to employ their new-found strength against a rapidly tiring opponent. In the words of General Fuller, for Napoleon the battle of Leipzig was “a second Trafalgar, this time on land; his initiative was gone.”

Less than three weeks after the cataclysm of Leipzig, the Emperor Napoleon was back at St. Cloud. With that astonishing resilience he customarily displayed in time of catastrophe, he at once immersed himself in planning the defense of French soil. For the second year running he had witnessed the destruction of half a million French troops and the rapid dwindling of his Empire’s frontiers, but still he appears to have believed that his situation and prospects were not beyond hope. Given a little time to create new armies, he was still confident of his ability to snatch a final victory from his converging and seemingly all-powerful opponents. “At present we are not ready for anything,” he confided to Marmont in mid-November, “but by the first fortnight in January we shall be in a position to achieve a great deal.”

To anybody but a supreme egotist, France’s military situation in the last months of 1813 must have appeared hopeless. Following their victory at Leipzig, more than 300,000 Allied troops would soon be poised along the Rhine, while the French could muster fewer than 80,000 exhausted and disease-ridden survivors to defend the 300-mile length of their eastern frontiers. Perhaps 100,000 French troops still remained in Germany and Poland, but without exception they were divided into widely separated and closely beleaguered detachments, incapable of taking any active part in France’s impending death struggle. In North Italy, Viceroy Eugàne was narrowly holding his own with 50,000 men along the Adige against the 75,000 Austrians of General Bellegarde, but he already was finding good reason for concern about the ambivalent attitude of Napoleon’s relation, the King of Naples. Amid the Pyrenees, the armies of Marshals Soult and Suchet (sharing 100,000 men between them) were steadily giving ground before the advance of Lord Wellington’s Anglo-Spanish forces (125,000 strong). Napoleon could derive little satisfaction from a study of the true situation on any of these fronts. He also faced the prospect of open dissent in both Holland and Belgium. The French people were also fast reaching exhaustion point after sustaining the ceaseless drain of its dwindling manpower, year after year, and the economic repercussions of two decades of warfare—gravely aggravated by the effects of the Royal Navy’s relentless blockade of France’s ports—were steadily mounting. The Marshalate was war-weary and increasingly mutinous; the dependable Berthier was seriously ill; and the military resources of the German satellites were no longer available to eke out the emaciated French war effort. All in all, Napoleon faced a chilling prospect.

Still, however, the spirit burned; his will to success remained indomitable. The Emperor goaded the jaded ministries of Paris into a flurry of activity. New armies must immediately be created for the defense of la patrie. Every last resource of manpower must be tapped. Edicts were issued calling up no less than 936,000 youthful conscripts and aged reservists during the winter months of 1813-14. Policemen, forest rangers, customs officers were all summoned to the tricolor, together with 150,000 conscripts of the Class of 1815. Large parts of the National Guard were embodied for active service. Every government controlled newspaper made emotional appeals for Frenchmen to rally for the defense of their country as in 1792. Orders were sent to the armies in Italy and Spain, calling for sizeable drafts of experienced soldiers to lead the embryonic citizen armies. Decrees announced a vast expansion of the Young Guard. New taxes would be levied to finance the war effort.

Simultaneously, Napoleon launched a full-scale diplomatic offensive, planning to free his hands of peripheral problems. In the hope of rallying Italian support behind Eugène, the Pope was released from house arrest in France and restored to the throne of St. Peter. To clear the southwest frontiers of France and make the veterans of Soult and Suchet available for action on the Rhine, the French Government offered to restore Ferdinand to the throne of Spain in return for a permanent cessation of hostilities—and a preliminary agreement to this effect was actually initialed by French and Spanish plenipotentiaries on December 11 at Valençay.

Napoleon was well aware, however, that the fruition of these desperate policies could not take place overnight. There had to be a lull, a breathing space, most particularly on the Rhine front where France was weakest and her foes most imposingly strong. In optimistic moments, the Emperor spoke of his hope that the Allies would delay their attack on France’s eastern frontier until the spring of 1814. He based this assessment on three considerations. First, the Allied armies must necessarily be in an exhausted condition after their exertions throughout 1813. Second, it would take them time to incorporate the forces of their new German allies and place their communications in order. Third, Napoleon gambled greatly on internal dissensions within the Alliance disrupting any plans for a winter offensive. By the spring Napoleon was confident that France’s new armies would be, in position along the Rhine, and he even dreamed, of a great offensive by Murat and Eugàne sweeping from Italy over the Alps to threaten Vienna—a repetition of 1796-97.

To some extent Napoleon’s calculations concerning the possibility of a stay in the Allied offensive were soundly based. Powerful factions within the Allied high command were advocating just such a course of action. The Emperor of Austria had at this time no great desire to see the total eclipse of his son-in-law, for the downfall of the French Empire would indubitably favor the interests of the Houses of Hohenzollern and Romanov rather than those of the Hapsburgs. Providing Austria regained her Italian possessions, Francis was prepared to grant France her “natural frontiers”(namely the Rhine, Alps and Pyrenees) even at the cost of Belgium. For purely selfish reasons, Crown Prince Bernadotte of Sweden was also opposed to a full-scale invasion of France; he apparently harbored the hope that the French people might be induced to replace Napoleon with himself, if affairs were properly handled and excessive direct pressure avoided. The representatives of Great Britain were equally concerned with the balance of power in a post-war Europe, and tended to share Austria’s view that Napoleon might be left the “natural frontiers”—less Antwerp and the Scheldt—providing adequate guarantees of future good conduct could be extracted.

The advocates of immediate action placed their faith in the Tsar. Alexander was actually of two minds on the subject. Desperately though he wished to see Russian troops occupy Paris in revenge for Moscow, it occasionally struck him that the soldiers of Holy Russia were being called to make heroic efforts and sustain heavy losses for the benefit of the Germanic powers rather than of Russia herself. On balance, however, he favored action. As for Prussia, King Frederick William III was expected to follow the Tsar’s lead, although personally he wished to avoid any unnecessary prolongation of the war. Among the soldiers, opinion was equally divided. Prince Schwarzenberg—“by nature a statesman and diplomatist rather than a general”—tended to favor his master’s view, but the Prussian leaders, led most vociferously by Blücher, demanded the immediate and vigorous continuation of the campaign until the final overthrow of “the Corsican Ogre.”

In early November, their forces poised along the banks of the Rhine, the Allied leaders went into conclave at Frankfurt-on-Main to settle their policy. So serious were the divisions of expressed opinion that on the 16th it was decided to suspend operations for the immediate future while Napoleon was approached with a conditional offer of the “natural frontiers.” News of this development probably convinced Napoleon that he had won his pause, however much he might distrust the ultimate motives of the Allies. To make the most of his opportunity, he countered by calling for a general Congress, making no definite mention of the proposed terms. As a sop to the Tsar, the Emperor later appointed Caulaincourt as foreign minister and chief plenipotentiary. It is dubious whether either side was completely genuine in its offers and suggestions at this time. The Allies threw the validity of their pacific postures into question when Napoleon provisionally agreed to the “natural frontiers” suggestion, on November 30; his envoys were then informed that the Allies had withdrawn their original offer, and it was eventually communicated that talks could now only open on the basis of the “frontiers of 1792.” This was out of the question for Napoleon. “I think it is doubtful whether the Allies are in good faith,” he wrote to Caulaincourt in early January, “or that England wants peace; for myself, I certainly desire it, but it must be solid and honorable. France without its natural frontiers, without Ostend or Antwerp, would no longer be able to take its place among the States of Europe.”

Some time before these lines were penned, the uneasy truce along the eastern frontiers had been shattered. Napoleon’s hopes of a lull extending into March or April were abruptly ended on December 22 when General Wrede crossed the Rhine and laid siege to Hunigen. Even earlier, an Austrian division under General Bubna had begun to occupy undefended Switzerland. By the last days of the year it was clear that the Allied masses were on the move and that der Schlag had come.

The main reasons that decided the Allies to open a major winter campaign were distrust of Napoleon’s long-term intentions (probably justified) and a wish to exploit the current atmosphere of unrest in the Low Countries. Holland had already rebelled against French domination, and it was felt that Belgium needed only positive action by the Allies to follow suit.

The plan was complex. The Army of the North was to split into two. One corps under General Bülow, supported by a British expedition led by General Graham, was to occupy Holland, advance on Antwerp and in due course sweep through Belgium into northern France. The other half, commanded by Crown Prince Bernadotte, Winzingerode and Bennigsen, was to isolate Marshal Davout’s sizeable detachment around Hamburg, keep up pressure against the Danes and continue the siege of Magdeburg. Covered by these secondary operations Blücher’s 100,000 men of the Army of Silesia would advance on the central reaches of the Rhine, secure crossings over a wide front between Coblenz and Mannheim, and hold Napoleon’s attention. Simultaneously, Schwarzenberg (accompanied by a veritable galaxy of Allied monarchs) would march from Basel to Colmar, cross the Upper Rhine, and head for the Langres Plateau. Then the second stage of the campaign would commence. While Blücher continued to pin Napoleon frontally, the 200,000-strong Army of Bohemia would fall upon the French right, subsidiary columns fanning out to the south and southwest to make contact with the Austro-Italian forces advancing on Lyons and Wellington’s army advancing from the Pyrenees. By mid-February at the latest, close on 400,000 Allied troops might well be operating on French soil, the majority of them converging on the ultimate objective—Paris.


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