Battle of Alexandria, (20-21 March 1801)

The Battle of Alexandria, 21 March 1801, Philip James de Loutherbourg

After Nelson’s victory in the Battle of the Nile and the unsuccessful French siege of Acre, Napoleon had returned to France in 1799, evading the British navy. He had, however, left his army in Egypt. It appeared both a threat to the overland route to India and a vulnerable target against which the British could use the advantages of amphibious power.

The resulting campaign of 1801 was the most successful British land operation in the Revolutionary War. Abercromby was appointed Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, and in 1801 he carefully trained his troops so that they should be able to face the French veterans. Abercromby stressed the need for professionalism on the part of officers, trained the troops in light infantry exercises, and adapted the close-order drill to make it more appropriate to battlefield conditions. He also focused on a crucial aspect of British operations, the assault landing, and held landing exercises on the Anatolian coast, developing effective co-operation with the navy. Abercromby had learned from the confusion of the 1799 landing on the Dutch coast.

The 5,000-strong Anglo-Indian force under General Sir David Baird would advance by way of the Red Sea. Vice Admiral Viscount Keith had 164 vessels-2 frigates, 100 transports, 5 ships of the line, and 57 Turkish vessels at his disposal. The army commander, General Sir Ralph Abercromby, was well respected, and his professionalism brought new life to the expedition. His subordinate was Major General Sir John Moore, later to become famous for his role in the Peninsular War.

The British landings at Aboukir bay. The organized lines of boats, controlling craft and signals seen in this period print at the Gloucestershire regimental museum.

The results were seen on 8 March 1801 when the British successfully landed in Aboukir Bay in the face of French opposition. A contested landing was never an easy operation, but Abercromby’s well-trained men were up to the challenge: training and tactics were applied in battlefield conditions, and with success. The first battle prior to the capture of Alexandria was fought on 8 March 1801 after an astounding amphibious operation disembarked 6,000 British troops at Aboukir Bay. The fifty men to each boat carried sixty rounds of ammunition and three days’ rations. The British, supported by gunboats, overcame strenuous opposition from the French and established a foothold. The French Armée d’Orient, commanded by General Menou, were quickly driven off the beach. Hudson Lowe, Major Commandant of the Corsican Rangers, a force of Corsican émigrés that took part in the landing, wrote to his father:

The fleet arrived in Aboukir Bay on the 1st but contrary winds prevented our disembarkation until the 8th. The French availed themselves of this interval to strengthen their position on the coast, collected about 3000 men to oppose our landing and lined the whole coast with their artillery. About 2 o clock in the morning the first division of the army were in the boats and after rowing five hours came within gun shot of the coast when the enemy opened the hottest fire upon us, at first of shell and round shot and as we approached nearer of grape and musketry. Several boats were sunk, many persons killed and in one boat alone 22 persons killed and wounded by musketry before the boat took ground, but nothing could withstand the ardent spirit and impetuousity of our troops who forced their landing in spite of every opposition immediately attacked the enemy whom they completely repulsed after an action of about half an hour. The number of our wounded and killed in this short but sharp contest was 640, that of the enemy about half the number. Their cavalry attempted to make some charges but its effects were felt alone by the Corsicans who stood the attack and had 19 men sabred but not without killing or dismounting as many of the enemy.

Abercromby then advanced towards Alexandria. On 13 March a French covering force was driven back at the battle of Mandara. Two French cavalry charges were beaten off by the steady fire of British lines, and the infantry attacks that followed were similarly defeated. Light infantry was used to hold off French skirmishers. Lowe recorded that the French had `a numerous and well served artillery’ and

offered a powerful resistance at every step we approached but our troops continued to advance, returned their fire with the most decisive effect. Nothing could be more admirable than the steadiness and discipline of our troops on this occasion. Every movement was performed with more regularity and precision than I have ever seen practised at any review or field day, though the men were dropping in the ranks under the hottest fire of the enemy’s grape and musquetry.

The Battle of Alexandria, beginning late on the night of 20 March and lasting until just before dawn of the following day, was fought at Nicopolis, some 12 miles from Alexandria, a town of 4,000 people. After constructing field fortifications, 14,000 British troops were deployed-three brigades on the left; Moore’s reserve division on the right, facing southwest toward Alexandria; the Foot Guards in the center; and a second line consisting of dismounted cavalry and two infantry brigades.

The British were fully prepared for battle before sunrise on the twenty-first. However, British intelligence had been faulty, and the unexpectedly high number of French troops-12,000-concerned Abercromby. The French were ordered to drive the British into the lake, and they attacked under cover of darkness, before Baird’s reinforcement would arrive. Moore’s reserve, the 28th (North Gloucestershire) Foot, as well as the 23rd (Royal Welch Fusiliers), 42nd Highlanders (the Black Watch), 58th (Rutlandshire) Foot, and four companies of the 40th (2nd Somersetshire) Foot, repulsed the first French attack.

The French twice renewed their attacks. The British, with bayonets fixed, dashed up sandhills to capture the French guns; they were supported by heavy guns from the Royal Navy ships at anchor, which also defended the ground already captured. French grenadiers and cavalry penetrated between the lines of the 28th Foot and the Highlanders, surrounding them front and rear in their vulnerable unfinished redoubt. However, the order “Rear rank 28th; Right About Face” was given, resulting in ferocious hand-to-hand combat by the stubborn and determined British troops, who fought for four hours. By facing about and offering staunch resistance, the regiment saved itself from destruction; as a result, they were thereafter granted the right to wear regimental badges on the backs of their headdresses.

The Black Watch was attacked twice, suffering many casualties, but it eventually captured the colors of an opposing regiment, most of whom had become casualties. The volleys of the Fusiliers throughout the battle were particularly beneficial; the French, to their cost, did not employ infantry in this fashion, instead relying on cavalry and artillery. The cannonades from the British gunboats caused appallingly high French casualties. The fighting was over by 10:00 A. M. Menou’s final charge resulted in slaughter; he lost 3,000 killed and wounded.

In the course of the battle, Abercromby personally fought some French dragoons, suffering a fatal wound in his leg, though he remained engaged and in command until his collapse on the field. He died of his wounds on 28 March. Moore was also wounded but recovered. The British suffered 1,468 casualties. Moore pushed the French into Alexandria, which fell in April. Menou, with only 7,300 French effectives, surrendered Cairo in June and, later, Alexandria on 2 September. The French occupation of Egypt was at an end.

References and further reading

Bierman, Irene A., ed. 2003. Napoleon in Egypt. Portland, OR: Ithaca Press. Brindle, Rosemary, trans. and ed. 2002. Guns in the Desert: General Jean-Pierre Doguereau’s Journal of Napoleon’s Egyptian Expedition. Westport, CT: Praeger. Chandler, David G. 1994. On the Napoleonic Wars. London: Greenhill. Fortescue, Sir J. W. 2004. History of the British Army. 20 vols. Vol. 4, part 2. Uckfield, UK: Naval and Military Press. Herold, J. Christopher. 2005. Bonaparte in Egypt. London: Leo Cooper. Mackesy, Piers. 1995. British Victory in Egypt, 1801: The End of Napoleon’s Conquest. London: Routledge.

Battle of Eckmühl 1809

1809 Cuirassier

Austrian Cavalry – Cuirassiers in 1809

Antoine de Marbot recounted an incident that demonstrated the properties of the two styles of cuirass, when at Eckmühl in April 1809 French and Austrian cuirassiers crashed together, while the accompanying light cavalry drew off to the flanks to avoid being caught up in the fight.

The cuirassiers advanced rapidly upon each other, and became one immense melée. Courage, tenacity and strength were well matched, but the defensive arms were unequal, for the Austrian cuirasses only covered them in front, and gave no protection to the back in a crowd. In this way, the French troopers who, having double cuirasses and no fear of being wounded from behind had only to think of thrusting, were able to give point to the enemy’s backs, and slew a great many of them with small loss to themselves. [When the Austrians wheeled about to withdraw] the fight became a butchery, as our cuirassiers pursued the enemy. This fight settled a question which had long been debated, as to the necessity of double cuirasses, for the proportion of Austrians wounded and killed amounted respectively to eight and thirteen for one Frenchman.

A further item of protective equipment used by heavy cavalry was a consequence of the knee-to-knee charge formation: the long boots worn to prevent the legs being crushed. Some thought them more an encumbrance than a protection, as Marbot observed of a dismounted cuirassier officer at Eckmühl who was unable to run fast enough to escape the enemy – he was killed in the act of pulling off his boots.

The plan was simple. While Davout pinned what little remained of the Austrian right, Lànnes, Lefebvre and Vandamme were to force their way forward along a ten-mile front between Hausen and Siegenburg. Their line of operations would run through Rottenburg and, once the penetration of the Austrian center was accomplished, part of the attacking force would head for Landshut to join Massena and thus isolate Charles’ left wing, while the remainder swept north toward Abbach to destroy his right. Napoleon assumed that the garrison of Ratisbon—the 2,000 men of Colonel Coutard’s 65th Regiment—would already have destroyed the bridge over the Danube there, thus denying the Austrians any easy line of retreat to the north bank of the Danube. Consequently he would only have to worry about blocking the more easterly crossing at Straubing.

At first on the 20th it appeared that all was going as planned. The attack by the French center went extremely well; beginning at 9:00 A.M., it took little over two hours for the corps to crash their way through the brittle barrier formed by Archduke Louis’ Vth Corps near Abensburg. At the same time, somewhat further south, Oudinot inflicted a sharp defeat on Hiller’s command. By midday, therefore, Napoleon’s strategic penetration was an accomplished fact, and it appeared that nothing could save the Austrian army from piecemeal destruction. By 5:00 A.M. on the 21st, Napoleon was feeling confident enough to write to Davout that he had achieved “another Jena.” He went on to enlarge on his plan for the double envelopment of the Austrian wings, clearly believing that nothing remained but the clearing up of the debris and the organization of a general pursuit. Davout was to move back to Ratisbon by way of Langquaid with two of his divisions. Taken together, these forces should suffice to attack and beat off the Ist and IInd Corps of the Austrian forces operating from Bohemia, besides encompassing the annihilation of the remnants of the Austrian IIIrd Corps on the south bank of the Danube. Meanwhile, Lannes and Lefebvre would be heading for Landshut; two German divisions and Nansouty’s cuirassiers were to lead the way, followed by Morand and Gudin, the remaining divisions of the VIIth Corps bringing up the rear. Massena, Napoleon assumed, would already be acting as the stop-force at Landshut. Very soon the road to Vienna would lie invitingly open with the shattered remnants of the Austrian army lying by the wayside. Barely three regiments could still be facing Davout.

On the map, at least, these dispositions appeared convincing. In practice, however, they were riddled with unjustified assumptions and miscalculations which have led many commentators to claim that Napoleon’s powers of judgment were clearly in decline. In the first place, Napoleon believed on insufficient evidence that Davout and Lefebvre had between them really defeated Charles’ right wing on the 19th, whereas in fact they had only brushed with its leading formations; secondly, the Emperor calculated that the battle at Abensberg on the 20th had disposed of a further two Austrian corps; thirdly, he assumed that there was no way over the Danube for the Austrians at Ratisbon; and fourthly, that Massena was already in possession of Landshut and the Isar crossings. All these assumptions were wholly or in part unjustified. Instead of being defeated, at least two thirds of the Austrian army was still intact and under more or less effective command. Only two Austrian corps—those of Louis and Hiller—had so far received anything approaching a drubbing. As it happened therefore, Davout was still faced by almost three Austrian corps. So much for the Emperor’s “three regiments!” In addition, both the city and bridge at Ratisbon were safely in Austrian possession. Attacked by Kollowrath from the north and Lichtenstein from the south, and faced with the hopeless task of defending an extensive and badly repaired perimeter, Colonel Couthard had surrendered at 5:00 P.M. the previous afternoon. Even worse, he had failed to destroy the vital bridge. This stone structure was massively built on numerous piers and provided with extensive ice shields on each side that made effective demolition practically impossible. Davout had mentioned this fact to the Emperor several times during the preceding week, but for once the mighty brain had failed to assimilate the information. Finally, the “stop-force,” so vital if the Austrian left wing was to be caught on the Isar, was not in fact in position. Massena had experienced considerable difficulty crossing the River Amper, and this wrecked his time schedule; in consequence the main part of his force was not yet beyond Freising, although a force of light cavalry and Claparède’s division of infantry had pushed ahead as far as Mooseburg. These troops were under orders to press on for Landshut down the right bank of the Isar if they were not opposed in force. Unfortunately, Massena was not in person with his advance guard, and this move was not executed with the greatest vigor. As a result, Hiller was able to recross the Isar safely with the remnants of three corps, leaving a strong garrison to hold the Landshut bridges. Thus the enemy left wing was already making good its escape.

During the day Napoleon and his staff rode rapidly southward to join the IVth Corps and supervise Hiller’s elimination, unaware that the opportunity was already passing. The Emperor was considerably put out to discover both the town and bridge of Landshut still in Austrian hands. This situation he determined to change. While Massena’s weary men pressed up the right bank toward the town, after passing the Isar at Mooseburg, Napoleon sent forward a special column of grenadiers under one of his personal aides, the bluntly spoken General Mouton, to capture the bridge by a coup de main. Although the piles were already on fire, Mouton gallantly led his men over the bridge, captured the island in the middle of the river, and then stormed over the second span of the crossing into Landshut itself, entirely disregarding the fact that the enemy were still massed in the town. This was a feat of arms as bold as that performed at Lodi in 1796, but, as on the earlier occasion, it proved unavailing. It was too late to trap Hiller, and a disgruntled Napoleon could think of nothing better than to detach Bessières at the head of a composite infantry and cavalry force to pursue the Austrian rear guard as best he might.

Although the events of the day had resulted in the Austrians losing 10,000 casualties, 30 guns, 600 caissons and 7,000 other vehicles, the Austrian army was still far from destroyed. During the morning it had appeared that the game was won, and this put the Emperor in a rare good humor. Passing the 13th Regiment of Light Infantry (part of Oudinot’s command), Napoleon asked the colonel to name the bravest man in his unit. After some hesitation the reply came: “Sire, it is the Drum Major.” At Napoleon’s request the apprehensive bandsman was produced for Imperial inspection. “They say that you are the bravest man in this regiment,” Napoleon told him. “I appoint you a Knight of the Legion of Honor, Baron of the Empire, and award you a pension of 4,000 francs….” A gasp went up from the paraded ranks; this was munificence on a grand scale! It was the first time that an ordinary soldier had been raised to the nobility. As le Tondu shrewdly calculated, this award made a profound impression on the bewildered and homesick conscripts throughout the army; it was a good example of man-management as well as a justified recognition of personal valor.

Napoleon’s mood was somewhat less benign that evening as he came to realize the extent of his miscalculations. Interrogation of prisoners revealed that only Hiller’s and Louis’ Austrian corps had been fully involved in the previous day’s fighting. Consequently the pursuit was decidedly premature. Furthermore, Napoleon realized that the Archduke Charles was still in a position to escape the French by way of Straubing, his alternative line of communication. As on October 12, 1806, Napoleon was faced with the need to change his line of march radically toward a flank. Instead of pressing on up the Isar in the general direction of Vienna, the French right must be swung north toward Straubing to sever this line of retreat before the Austrians could take full advantage of it. Davout and Lefebvre must now serve as the direct pressure force, while Lannes moved rapidly toward Rocking in the role of enveloping force. Everything, however, depended on the continued denial of Ratisbon and its bridge to the Austrians, otherwise yet another avenue of escape would be available to Charles. The Emperor pored over his maps at Landshut, issuing a stream of orders.

A little later the next blow fell; a letter from Davout at last reported the loss of both Ratisbon and its intact bridge on the afternoon of the 20th. Not only did this mean that Charles could escape into Bohemia should he so choose, but it also implied that he was now in a position to receive active and immediate support from Bellegarde’s and Kollowrath’s corps, previously isolated on the northern bank of the Danube. Despite this new disappointment Napoleon decided to continue with his present plan; he doubted that Charles would retire into Bohemia by way of Ratisbon as this would leave the road to Vienna entirely unguarded. He calculated that Charles would either move eastward toward Straubing or make an attempt to reopen his communications over the Isar by way of Landau. Early news of any such moves would be vital; accordingly, General Saint-Sulpice, commanding the Second Division of Cuirassiers presently at Essenbach, was ordered “to keep a close watch on the road to Straubing and on that to Landau” and to send in without fail “tomorrow evening the reports from all the outposts, patrols and spies.”

Although Napoleon often had good reason to remonstrate at the failure of certain of his subordinates to keep him fully and accurately informed, he had no grounds for any such complaint with regard to Marshal Davout on the 21st. Late in the evening, a new dispatch arrived (written at 11:00 A.M.), reporting that the enemy was present in force near Tengen and Hausen: “Sire—the whole enemy army is before me. The fighting is very hot.”19 A message from Lefebvre confirmed this assessment independently. A little later another report arrived from the IIIrd Corps, sent off at 5:00 P.M., in which Davout stated that the Austrians were about to attack his left flank in strength, ending with the ominous phrase, “I will hold my positions—I hope.” Napoleon now appreciated that Davout and Lefebvre were facing a dangerous situation; clearly considerably more than three regiments were to their front! However, he decided to reinforce the sector with only Oudinot’s two divisions and the Prince Regent’s Bavarian division from Rothenburg. Thus some 36,000 French troops were being called to face at least 75, Austrians. He felt confident, however, that once Lannes’ turning movement made its presence felt the Archduke Charles would lose no time in falling back toward Straubing or the Isar. The Emperor, meanwhile, decided to wait in the vicinity of Landshut for news of Charles’ retreat and its direction.

Early in the morning of April 22, a personal emissary from Davout reached the Imperial Field Headquarters. General Piré was the bearer of a new dispatch from the Danube sector, sent off at 7:00 P.M. the previous evening. Davout reported that he was more or less holding his ground, but was running dangerously short of ammunition and that there were still no signs of an Austrian retreat to his front. The Emperor dictated an important reply revealing what was in his mind. When he began the letter at 2:30 A.M. he was still determined to adhere to the plan of the 21st; he felt that Charles was delaying his main retreat only in order to give his wagon trains time to get clear, but as a precautionary move to induce the Austrians to quit the vicinity of Eckmühl, and at the same time provide assistance for Davout in case of emergency, he was ordering Vandamme to move 25,000 men to the intermediate position of Ergeltsbach with orders to contact Davout’s right flank and make a pass towards Straubing. Napoleon was reluctant to commit the remainder of the army at this stage, for he realized that if he moved in sufficient force toward either Eckmühl (en route for Ratisbon) or Straubing, he would inevitably leave the enemy with unchallenged use of the other avenue of escape, as there were not sufficient French troops available to block both. In other words, he was anxious that Charles should reveal his hand first.

Nevertheless, Napoleon decided to move his remaining formations in the general direction of Passau so as to threaten the highway to Vienna. In the meantime, Davout was given discretion to decide whether to give ground or summon aid from Vandamme toward Eckmühl if the enemy continued to hold their present positions. This order was on the point of dispatch when the Emperor received further tidings from both Davout and General Saint-Sulpice which changed the aspect of affairs. The former reiterated that there was no sign of an impending Austrian withdrawal, the latter that all roads to Straubing and Landau were quiet. As both Lannes’ and Vandamme’s outflanking moves had thus so far clearly failed to budge the archduke, the Emperor now decided to march in full force to Eckmühl after all. In a postscript to Davout’s orders added at 4:00

A.M., Napoleon wrote: “I am resolved to get on the move, and I will be near Eckmühl by midday and in a position to attack the enemy vigorously by three o’clock. I shall have 40,000 men with me. Send me aides-de-camp with Bavarian escorts to let me know what you have done during the morning….” He went on to devise a signaling system. “Before midday I shall be in person at Ergeltsbach. If I hear a cannonade, I shall know that I must attack. If I do not hear one, and you are in an attacking position, have a salvo of ten guns fired once at midday, the same at one o’clock, and again at two. My aide-de-camp, Lebrun, will be on his way to you by a quarter past four; I have decided to exterminate Prince Charles’ army today, or tomorrow at the very latest.” Thus the whole French army, save only Bessières’ 20,000 still pursuing Hiller, was about to fall on the Austrian forces at Eckmühl.

The morning of the 22nd opened in deceptive calm. For several hours of daylight neither Davout nor Lefebvre could report any notable enemy activity on their front. Then, a spurring messenger from General Pajol, stationed on the extreme left of the IIIrd Corps’ position, reported that large-scale enemy movements were in progress between the main road running beside the Danube and the village of Abbach, lying about one mile from the river bank. It appeared that the Austrians were deliberately moving to attack the left flank of the IIIrd Corps’ outlying division, and Davout lost no time in ordering up Montbrun’s cavalry in support of Friant and his neighbor Pajol. In fact, what was happening was this: the Archduke Charles planned to leave the 40,000 troops of Rosenburg and Hohenzollern to attack Davout and Lefebvre and thus protect his lines of communication with Ratisbon while the remaining two corps presently under command, namely those of Kollowrath and Lichtenstein, marched for Abbach to secure undisputed control of the river bank and thus cut Napoleon off from the Danube and his presumed lines of communication.

The Austrian plans were obviously on the point of going awry at 1:30 P.M. when the sound of gunfire from the south revealed the approach of Napoleon and the main body. Davout lost not an instant in ordering his men to attack along the whole line, despite their numerical inferiority, and this action had the desired effect of pinning the Austrians. Several deeds of great gallantry were performed; the 10th Regiment of Light Infantry for instance succeeded in storming the village of Leuchling and soon after took possession of the wood of Unter-Leuchling at the cost of crippling casualties and in face of the most determined opposition. In the meantime, the Bavarian divisions of Deroy and the Prince Royal (VIIth Corps) attacked the right of the Eckmühl position while General Demont moved up the valley of the River Gross Laber to cover the crossing of Lannes’ troops, constituting Napoleon’s advance guard. Very soon thereafter, General Vandamme’s Württembergers were in the act of capturing Buckhausen and the two divisions of Lannes’ corps were in position to fall with a will on the Austrian IVth Corps, holding the eastern approaches to Eckmühl, Gudin’s troops seizing the important heights of Rocking. For once Napoleon’s favorite battle maneuver of a frontal attack linked with an outflanking column was working with great efficiency.

With his southern flank on the point of collapse, the Austrian commander in chief lost no time in ordering an immediate retreat to Ratisbon. This movement proceeded throughout the hours of darkness, covered by the cavalry. Napoleon, meanwhile had reached Egglofsheim with Lannes and Massena, and there held a council of war with his senior generals to settle their future actions. There was a marked disinclination to order an immediate all-out pursuit of the discomfited Charles. The generals were as weary as their men, and for once Napoleon decided to follow their advice. The troops of Morand and Gudin were dropping to the ground fast asleep from where they stood in the ranks, and the Württembergers were hardly in better fettle. Weighing up the pros and cons of an immediate exploitation of his army’s success, Napoleon decided that the dangers of a full-scale night action, with all the inevitable confusions and crises this would entail, might prove too much for his men’s present condition. Consequently, only the cavalry were permitted to follow the foe. Generals Nansouty and Saint-Sulpice moved their 40 squadrons of cuirassiers and a further 34 squadrons of German cavalry to the fore of Gudin’s division and proceeded to harass the enemy horsemen throughout the night; many fierce moonlit encounters occurred. The exhausted infantry divisions meanwhile bivouacked on the field of battle. As a result, the Austrians avoided total disaster.

During the early hours of the 23rd, the leading Austrian formations began to file over the bridges of Ratisbon toward Bohemia. As soon as it was light, Napoleon launched his rested men in pursuit. Except for Massena, sent off to capture Straubing, all the army was ordered toward Ratisbon, for Napoleon was now full of eagerness to get onto the heels of Archduke Charles and attempt to finish the work commenced at Eckmühl. However, the events of the day proved frustrating in the extreme. Old though the fortifications of Ratisbon were, they were staunchly defended by Charles’ rear guard, 6,000 strong. Attack after attack on the deep ditch and fortifications beyond failed to penetrate the defenses, and at one time it appeared that there would be no alternative but to mount a full-scale, regular siege. “But to sit down in front of the walls and open siegeworks and dig trenches and emplacements and mines and batteries, would fatally delay the campaign. Under cover of the siege of Ratisbon, the Archduke Charles would quickly reorganize his defeated army.” It was impossible to ignore the place and push on directly for Vienna; such an action would only invite a future Austrian counterattack against the extended French communications by way of the city and its bridge. It seemed, therefore, that the whole campaign would have to come to a standstill until Ratisbon could be reduced. Such a check might persuade Prussia and various other dissident German states to join in the conflict on the side of Austria. This was a dire prospect which Napoleon determined to avoid at all costs; there was consequently no alternative but to order fresh assaults heedless of casualties. The task was entrusted to that reliable fire-eater, Marshal Lannes. Then, while supervising the preparations for the storm, the Emperor was slightly wounded in the right foot by a spent cannonball. The news spread like wildfire throughout the aghast army, but Napoleon lost no time in mounting his horse in spite of considerable pain and rode up and down the lines showing himself to the men and bestowing a considerable number of decorations on deserving soldiers as he passed. Confidence and morale were immediately restored.

At last all was ready for the escalade. Our informant, Baron Marbot, played a leading part in the drama that now unfolded. After two assaults by volunteers drawn from Morand’s division had failed in a costly fashion, no further troops would step forward and take the scaling ladders in hand. “Then the intrepid Lannes exclaimed, ‘Oh, well! I am going to prove to you that before I was a marshal I was a grenadier—and so I am still!’ He seized a ladder, picked it up, and started to carry it toward the breach. His aides-de-camp tried to stop him, but he shouldered us off…. I then addressed him as follows: ‘Monsieur le Maréchal, you wouldn’t want to see us dishonored—but so we shall be if you receive the slightest scratch carrying a ladder toward the ramparts, at least before all your aides have been killed!’ Then, despite his efforts, I snatched away one end of the ladder and put it on my shoulder, while Viry took the other and our fellow aides took hold of more ladders, two by two. At the sight of a Marshal of the Empire disputing with his aides-de-camp as to who should mount first to the assault, a cry of enthusiasm rose from the whole division.” A rush of officers and men followed—” the wine was drawn, it had to be drunk.” After a period of confusion and heavy loss, it was Marbot and his comrade La Bédoyère who were first up the ladders and over the walltop. By late evening, all Ratisbon was in French hands except for the outskirts surrounding the bridgehead on the northern bank.

Although Ratisbon had thus been captured by a coup de main, the bridge was still commanded by the enemy. Massena had meanwhile enjoyed no better fortune at Straubing, where he found all the crossings already destroyed. After receiving these tidings, Napoleon was compelled to concede that the Archduke Charles had escaped him, at least for the time being. The chance of a quick knockout blow, as achieved in 1800, 1805 and 1806, had this time passed him by, and the first phase of the Campaign of 1809 was over without a decisive result. Most commentators blame the way in which Napoleon insisted on sending off Massena on a wide sweep toward the River Saale on the 20th. He thus broke up the concentration of the army which he had been so determined to achieve over the preceding three days and deprived himself of a decisive superiority of force during the ensuing actions in the vicinity of the Danube. There is considerable justice in this accusation, but of course Napoleon was not gifted with second sight, which might have revealed the course events were to follow. As we have seen, he completely miscalculated the position, strength and intentions of his adversaries, and even of his own forces, on more than one occasion.

These criticisms notwithstanding, Napoleon undoubtedly changed the overall military situation beyond all recognition in the week following his arrival at the front. Berthier’s errors were retrieved, the initiative undoubtedly regained, and Charles given such a drubbing at Eckmühl that he wrote to the Austrian Emperor soon after: “If we have another engagement such as this I shall have no army left. I am awaiting negotiations.” Napoleon was clearly dominating his adversary and the road to Vienna lay open before him. Moreover, the tactical handling of the succession of battles was particularly brilliant, and over the period the Austrians lost some 30,000 casualties. This was no mean achievement when we remember that a considerable proportion of Napoleon’s army consisted of raw conscripts, and that almost all the crack formations, including the Guard, were absent from these actions. What was more, the fact that Charles was in headlong retreat proved sufficient to dissuade the wavering members of the Confederation—Bavaria, Württemberg and Saxony in particular—from deserting the French alliance. Thus Napoleon had some justification for reasonable satisfaction, and was particularly pleased with the conduct of some of his senior officers. On the 22nd, he found time to parade St. Hilaire’s division and tell its commander in front of his men: “Well, you have earned your marshal’s baton and you shall have it.” Fate, however, was to ordain otherwise. Before the coveted insignia could arrive from Paris, St. Hilaire would be dead alongside the irreplaceable Lannes and the able cavalry commander General d’Espagne—all of them destined to be casualties in the grim fighting at Aspern-Essling that lay less than a month away.

The Emperor still had not heard of the fall of Ratisbon and its intact bridge into Austrian hands.

Crimean War: Naval Operations in the Pacific, 1854–5

The Russian Frigate Pallad.Pallada (Russian: Паллада) was a sail frigate of the Imperial Russian Navy , most noted for its service as flagship of Vice Admiral Yevfimy Putyatin during his visit to Japan in 1853, which later resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Shimoda of 1855, establishing formal relations between the two countries. In addition to her diplomatic mission, her crew also conducted numerous geographical and natural studies in the Far East. She was scuttled by her own crew in the Crimean War due to the poor condition of her hull in 1855.

At a time when Russian imperial expansion eastwards across Siberia was still in its infancy, there were few major Russian settlements on the Pacific coast that might merit the attention of the allied fleets. The only sizeable Russian towns in the region were Okhotsk and Petropavlovsk, along with the fur and fish trading port of Sitka in Alaska. Smaller fishing and trading settlements hardly merited attention, as did the local communities on Sakhalin Island or around the estuary of the River Amur, former Chinese territory which had only recently been brought under Russian control. The port of Petropavlovsk, situated on the Kamchatka Peninsula and sheltered in Avocha Bay, was the largest Russian settlement on the Pacific coast. Founded as recently as 1740 by the Danish explorer Vitus Behring (1681–1741), after whom the Behring Sea and Strait were named, the port recalled his two ships, St Peter and St Paul. It was developing as an important fishing and whaling port, a base for voyages into the Arctic seas to the north and as a link with Russian trading settlements in Alaska. In 1854, it was also an anchorage of the Russian Pacific squadron, the Okhotsk flotilla.

Had it not been for the fact of a Russian naval presence in the northern Pacific the region might well have been left alone by the allies, since it was so remote and of little economic significance. Added to that, British (and presumably French) knowledge of the region was minimal and sea charts just about non-existent. Nevertheless, a Russian naval squadron did exist, though its exact size and location were unknown, and would have to be dealt with, since there was some concern that if unmolested Russian warships might ‘injure’ British whalers or traders operating in the Pacific or moving to and from the USA, China and Australia. It was therefore decided in the summer of 1854 that Anglo-French naval forces would indeed operate against Russian interests in the region. The aim, as in the other naval theatres, was to seek out and destroy Russian warships (in this case the small Okhotsk squadron), to attack shore-based military targets and to disrupt trade, which largely meant the fishing and whaling industry and trade with Russian Alaska.

The Russian naval presence in the northwestern Pacific was, not surprisingly, very small. Her fleet in the China and Japan seas in 1854 was commanded by Rear Admiral Yevfimy Putyatin, a highly experienced explorer, diplomat and naval officer who had under his immediate command only the aged 60-gun frigate Pallada (or Pallas), the frigate Aurora and the armed transport Dvina. The last named had only recently refitted in Portsmouth! Putyatin knew very well that his enemy could deploy a far greater force against him and wisely sought to avoid a naval engagement. The frigate Pallada he sent for safety far up the River Amur, whilst the Aurora and Dvina were dispatched to the shelter of Petropavlovsk where they could not only find a refuge but also help in the defence of the port if required.

The allied squadron deployed to operate in the north Pacific was drawn from warships usually on the China Station or patrolling the American Pacific coast, which could be rapidly diverted for active operations against Russian interests. The chosen ships gradually assembled in the Marquesas in May and June and finally concentrated at Honolulu late in July 1854, where in a leisurely manner they completed their repairs and took on water and provisions. The combined force comprised:

British

President (flagship), a 50-gun frigate under Captain Richard Burridge. Pique, a fifth-rate frigate under Captain Sir F.W.E. Nicolson, Bart. Trincomalee, a Leda-class frigate under Captain Wallace Houstoun.7 Amphitrite, a Leda-class frigate, under Captain Charles Fredericks. Virago, a paddle-steamer under Commander Edward Marshal.

French

La Forte (flagship), frigate under Captain de Miniac. L’Eurydice, frigate under Captain de la Grandie`re. L’Artemise, corvette under Captain L’Eveque. L’Obligado, brig under Captain Rosenavat.

The French contingent was under Rear Admiral Auguste Febvrier- Despointes (1796–1855) but overall command lay with the British Rear Admiral David Price commanding the British squadron in the Pacific. Having duly received his orders from the Admiralty, on 9 May Price issued instructions from President, then at Callao in Peru, to his subordinate commanders requiring that ‘we should forthwith commence and execute all such hostile measures as may be in our power . . . against Russia and against ships belonging to the Emperor of Russia or to his subjects or others inhabiting within any of his countries, territories or domains’. Having detached the Amphitrite, Trincomalee and Artemise to cruise for commerce protection off the coast of California, the allied squadron still mounted over 200 guns, with 2,000 men and was what one writer called ‘a very respectable force of ships to meet the Russians with’. Setting off from Honolulu on 25 July in search of enemy warships, the allies headed first for the Russian fur-trading port of Sitka in Alaska, hoping to locate the Russian squadron there. When nothing was found, the combined fleet turned for the Kamchatka Peninsula and on 28 August 1854 arrived in Avocha Bay.

Such is the distance between St Petersburg and Petropavlovsk that the military governor of Kamchatka in 1854, Rear Admiral Vasili Zavoyko, had only heard that a state of war existed between Russian, Britain and France in mid-July. Although Petropavlovsk already had some established fortifications, the Admiral lost no time in strengthening its defences, realising that the port would be an obvious target for a naval attack. He ordered the construction of new entrenchments, batteries, banks and ditches and enrolled local men into a form of ‘town guard’. Merchant ships already in the bay were dispersed and the only Russian warships in the port, the recently arrived Aurora and Dvina, were withdrawn deeper into the bay, moored in such a way that their guns would serve as additional batteries defending the approaches to the port. The Aurora took shelter behind a large sand spit, additionally defended by an 11-gun shore battery and both ships’ crews were landed to join the defenders. Nevertheless, Zavoyko had only 67 heavy guns and less than 1,000 armed men (including the naval contingent) to defend the entire town. He could then do no more than wait for an enemy to appear.

Having found no worthy targets in Alaska or at sea over the past five weeks, Admiral Price arrived off Petropavlovsk on 29 August and went aboard the steamer Virago to reconnoitre the port. He found it defended by four small batteries and a larger work, Fort Schakoff, mounting five heavy guns and itself defended by flank batteries, each of twelve 36-pounders. Holding a council of war aboard President, Price decided to attack the port on 30 August. Early that morning, the ships were cleared for action and the President, Pique, La Forte, L’Eurydice and L’Obligado entered the harbour. But after only a few rounds had been fired at the Russian defences, a disaster occurred. Just after the firing began, Admiral Price retired to his cabin below decks on the President and shot himself in the heart; he died some hours later. Whether it was the accidental discharge of his own pistol, as was tactfully suggested at the time, or the suicide attempt of an officer overwhelmed by his responsibilities and sense of inadequacy will never be known. On 1 September his body was taken by Virago to be buried on the nearby island of Tarinski.

The unfortunate Rear Admiral Price (1790–1854) was typical of the gerontocracy which dominated the Royal Navy in the 1850s and whose employment in the Baltic and elsewhere was to cause such comment. Universally regarded with respect as a courteous and tactful man, Price was quite out of his depth as the commander of a combined squadron on active service. He was then 64 years old, had been a post captain for nearly forty years before his recent promotion to rear admiral and had seen no service at sea for over a generation. Operations in the Pacific, 1854–5 91 a brave and resourceful officer, seeing extensive action during the Napoleonic Wars, from Copenhagen in 1801, through numerous naval clashes with the French and during the American War in 1814. But thereafter he had led a quiet life, with six years in retirement (1838–44) as JP for Brecon. Returned to service, from 1846 to 1850 he was superintendent of Sheerness Dockyard, being promoted rear admiral in November 1850, and then for some unaccountable reason, apart from the merit of his long service, given active command of British naval forces in the Pacific in August 1853. The tragedy of his sudden death at Petropavlovsk naturally caused the complete disruption of the planned attack. As next senior British naval officer, overall command of the British ships was quickly transferred to Captain Sir Frederick Nicolson of the Pique, who postponed the attack and ordered the immediate withdrawal of the squadron. Thereafter, the French Admiral Auguste Febvrier-Despointes directed operations; he too was to die aboard his flagship La Forte in 1855.

At 8.00am on 31 August, the allied squadron once again sailed into the harbour and began the bombardment of Petropavlovsk in earnest. But indecision ruined any chance of success. Fearful of serious damage to the ships, the French Admiral kept them at long range – in fact too far to do any serious damage to well-defended batteries. The main target was the large 11-gun battery, which was actually silenced by fire from La Forte and President. The Russian ship Aurora returned a damaging fire from behind her defended position, though she suffered quite severely from the allied response. Finally, a landing party from Virago under Captain Charles A. Parker, RM actually captured one 3-gun shore battery and spiked its guns before withdrawing. But by nightfall little had been achieved and the squadron again withdrew; overnight, the Russians repaired the damage to their batteries ready for the next onslaught.

In council with his officers, Febvrier-Despointes decided to launch a combined land and sea assault on 4 September. Whilst the warships bombarded the Russian defences, a Naval Brigade of 700 sailors and 100 marines drawn from the Pique and the Eurydice, nearly half of the entire manpower of the allied squadron, would be landed to seize gun positions north of the port prior to an attack on the town itself. This force was placed under the command of Captain de la Grandie`re of L’Eurydice, with Captain Burridge of the President and the marine contingent again under Captain Parker. The three warships President, Virago and La Forte would occupy the attention of the shore batteries (which incidentally did a great deal of damage to the ships’ masts and rigging), whilst the shore parties carried aboard Virago dealt with the guns at close quarters and would then attack the town. The main landing beyond the town initially went well, though the site was badly chosen, overlooked as it was by a hill which turned out to be well defended. Gunfire from President and Virago silenced two shore batteries and the immediate land objective, the Russian Battery No. 4, was quickly taken. However, it was found simply to have been abandoned by its small crew under Lieutenant Popoff, who withdrew to No. 2 battery, having spiked its three guns. The warships maintained their previous long-range barrage, especially at the Aurora and at the large No. 2 battery under Lieutenant Prince Maksutoff but the shore party soon got into difficulties and the entire attack collapsed. In face of the strong enemy landing, Russian defenders had been positioned on a wooded hill overlooking the route of the advance and in concealed positions in thick brushland. As the Naval Brigade and marines pushed inland towards No. 2 battery, impeded by dense brambles and undergrowth, they were met with heavy and accurate fire from concealed positions, followed by a counter-attack by Russian sailors. Captain Parker and two French officers, including Captain Lefebvre of L’Eurydice, were amongst the first killed and nine other British and French officers were quickly wounded. With these losses amongst their leaders and under heavy and concentrated fire, the rest fell back and a retreat to the shore was ordered. By the time the fighting stopped, 107 British and 101 French sailors and marines had been killed or wounded in what was an ignominious repulse. The survivors regained the ships by 10.45am and although a desultory firing continued until nightfall, nothing significant was achieved. The ships withdrew beyond range in the evening to repair and to treat the wounded and overnight the Russians again re-occupied or repaired their damaged gun positions.

Needless to say, this setback in the Far East was greeted with a mixture of amazement and derision in Britain, where the failure to achieve anything concrete against so remote an enemy was scarcely credited. The reputation of the Russians as defenders and as opponents capable of supplying and holding on to even the most remote Imperial outpost was greatly enhanced and greatly admired. There is no doubting the bravery of the officers and men on both sides – the casualties amongst the allied officers perhaps indicating a rather reckless disregard for their own safety – but it is equally clear that the landing was badly thought-out, with little accurate information on the nature and strength of the enemy positions they were attacking. The Russians proved to be determined and effective defenders – apparently much to the surprise of the officers of the allied fleet, who seem to have expected a complete collapse and withdrawal by the Russians.

The fleet withdrew to repair and after the allied dead were buried on Tarinski Island on the 5, 6 and 7 September the squadron simply left the area, its commanders considering it too weakened to renew the attack. The Russians reported 115 casualties – 40 killed and 75 wounded, amongst whom was Lieutenant Prince Maksutoff, mortally wounded – and damage to the town’s fish warehouse and 13 other buildings from the naval bombardment. Although Virago and President managed to capture the Russian trading schooner Anadis and the 10-gun transport Sitka on 7 September, these were slender rewards achieved at great cost. The British element sailed for winter stations in Vancouver and the French to San Francisco.

There were no further naval operations in the Pacific that year. The debacle in August and September forced a complete restructuring of the allied squadron made available for operations in the Russian Pacific and the deployment of new warships to the theatre. Rear Admiral Henry William Bruce, commanding Britain’s Pacific Squadron, was appointed to the command in November 1854 but nothing was done until the better weather of the spring of 1855. There were two British squadrons available to provide ships to tackle the Russian presence in the Pacific. The Pacific Squadron generally patrolled the western coasts of the Americas whilst the other was the established China Squadron under Admiral Sir James Stirling. Between them, they would provide a larger force for operations against the Russians and initially put under Admiral Bruce the President, flagship, the Pique, Trincomalee, Dido, Amphitrite, Brisk, screw, Encounter and Barracouta. The French element, commanded by Rear Admiral Martin Fourichon after the death of Febvrier-Despointes, comprised, as in 1854, La Forte, L’Eurydice and L’Obligado with L’Alceste.

In April 1855, Admiral Bruce ordered the Encounter and the Barracouta simply to watch Petropavlovsk and report the movement of Russian ships, if any. The city had in fact been heavily re-fortified in the early months of 1855 but the allied plans for a renewed and successful attack were suddenly rendered obsolete. The defenders of the city, under Admiral Vasili Zavoyko, were well aware of the danger they faced from a renewed onslaught by a much more powerful force. In a remarkably audacious and resourceful move, they cut passages through the ice to release their trapped ships and under cover of snow and dense fog on 17 April 1855, the entire Russian garrison of about 800 was withdrawn from the town and carried southwards to safety in the estuary of the Amur River in the Aurora and Dvina and any other available merchant ship. The remaining civil population to the number of about 1,300 people fled overland to take refuge in the inland village of Avatcha, far from the danger of naval gunnery. The town’s guns were spiked, removed or buried. It was all swiftly, efficiently and effectively carried out, without the allied observers even being aware of the movement.

When in May 1855, the new allied squadron under Bruce sailed into the harbour of Petropavlovsk, it was immediately clear that the town was deserted – apart from two American traders who hoisted the ‘Stars and Stripes’ as a friendly signal. Landing parties destroyed the remaining batteries and gun platforms and burned the arsenal and magazines, but did no damage to private property – unlike the fate of the unfortunate town of Kola in the White Sea. A stranded Russian whaler found in the inner harbour was burned but no attempt was made at any stage to follow the Russian ships into the Amur, since they were reported to be very well protected. Having nothing else to achieve at Petropavlovsk, Bruce and Fourichon directed their ships to Sitka but since it was found to be undefended and with no Russian shipping in port, it was left unharmed. The British press later leveled special criticism against the commanders of the Encounter and the Barracouta for allowing the entire garrison of Petropavlovsk to escape by ship along channels that were not even marked on the Admiralty charts. They did not, however, face any investigation by the authorities.

Despite the change of commanders and an increase in strength, the allied Pacific campaign of 1855 was to be another depressing failure, characterised by a round of seemingly pointless (and certainly ineffective) patrols in largely unknown waters. They simply could not find the Russian Pacific Squadron – or at least, could not close with it – and unlike allied ships in the Baltic and Azoff seas made little attempt to damage the largely insignificant local trade or local communities. Sporadic naval operations by various ships drawn off the China station continued throughout the year. In April, HMS Spartan was detached to patrol the Kuril Islands, with no result, and ships cruised in Japanese and Korean waters searching for Russian vessels. Allied warships visited the Japanese port of Hakodate and from there sailed north, examining largely insignificant settlements on scattered islands; at Urup in the Kuril Islands, they seized the possessions of the Russian-American Company. More alarmingly, Commodore Elliott, with the 40-gun Sybille, the screw Hornet and the Bittern, reported sighting a Russian squadron in Castries Bay on 20 May. They were identified as the ships Aurora, Dvina (both recently escaped from the Amur), Oltenitza, the 6-gun Vostok, and two other unidentified armed vessels. With his three small ships – and no charts or knowledge of the those waters – Elliott did not feel strong enough to enter the bay to try to ‘cut out’ the enemy vessels and apart from Hornet lobbing a few long-range shells at the Dvina, nothing could be done. Having failed to frighten or induce the Russian ships out of the bay to fight in the open sea, Elliott dispatched the Bittern to bring up reinforcements and spent a fruitless week cruising with Hornet and Sybille trying to watch the Russians in Castries Bay. By the time Bittern returned with part of the China Squadron under its Admiral, Sir James Stirling, the Russian vessels had escaped back into the Amur, simply bypassing Commodore Elliott’s slight blockade – a fact that caused some caustic comment in London. The Pique, Barracouta and Amphitrite, joined by the French vessels Sibylle and Constantine, were then detached under Elliott to patrol the Sea of Okhotsk, unsuccessfully searching for the vanished Russian ships.

Admiral Bruce’s squadron, having cruised to no great effect in the estuary of the Amur and then amongst the Kuril Islands in August and September, simply dispersed as winter set in; most of the British vessels headed once more for the dockyards on Vancouver Island, Britain’s nearest Pacific port, whilst the French again sailed for San Francisco. The last act of the Pacific campaign, if it can be called such, was the seizure by Barracouta of the brig Greta, out of Bremen but under US colours, which was found to have on board most of the crew of the Russian frigate Diana. The 50-gun Diana had had an exciting time. Laden with ammunition and other supplies intended to re-supply Petropavlovsk, she had come all the way from Cronstadt in 1854, eluding the allied blockade of the Baltic in its early days. After an epic journey around the world, she was eventually wrecked off the coast of Japan in November 1854 and her non-arrival at Petropavlovsk was another other reason for the town’s abandonment in May 1855. Greta was sent under Lieutenant R. Gibson to Hong Kong and claimed as a prize.

The operations in 1855 were as limited and as unsuccessful – though less costly in lives – as those in 1854 and again caused an outburst of indignation in England. That such large, expensive and powerful fleets could do so little was beyond conception in Britain. The naval authorities on the spot were accused of ‘knight-errantry’ in pointlessly cruising distant, largely uncharted seas with no apparent goal, in dividing their forces up into squadrons too small to tackle any sizeable Russian force that remained and especially in allowing the flight of the Russian squadron in Castries Bay. A correspondent of The Times summed up the whole operation in October 1855:

The result of the expedition was most unsatisfactory and indeed, its commencement was of the same character. Petropavlovski, which was found 14 or 15 months back defended in such a manner as justified a hostile attack, actually repelled the allied forces; and this year when visited, it was disarmed and of course spared. The Russian settlements in the Amoor River turn out to be a mere myth. Finally, the Russian Pacific Squadron appears before our officers just to disappoint their hopes and, when the British Admiral is ready, eludes all pursuit. The Russian ships are, no doubt, at this moment snugly ensconced behind some choice sandbanks in the Sea of Okhotsk.

Unsurprisingly, there were no significant allied naval operations in the Pacific in 1856.

LEIPZIG (BATTLE OF THE NATIONS)

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16–18 October 1813

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Johann Peter Krafft (1780-1856)-‘victory declaration after the battle of Leipzig, 1813’-oil on canvas-1813   Berlin-Deutsches Historiches Museum. The Battle of Leipzig, also known as the Battle of the Nations, was fought between Napoleon and the three Allied armies that had been approaching the city for several days: the Army of Bohemia (Feldmarschall Karl Philipp Fürst zu Schwarzenberg), the Army of Silesia (General Gebhard Lebrecht von Blücher), and the Army of the North (former French marshal Jean-Baptiste-Jules Bernadotte, now Crown Prince of Sweden). Napoleon suffered a major defeat, which decided the campaign in Germany. He then fell back from Saxony to France.

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Battle of Leipzig, October 16 actions.

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Battle of Leipzig, 18 October actions.

Forces Engaged

Allied: 57,000 Prussians (Army of Silesia). Commander: Field Marshal Gebhard von Blücher. 160,000 Austrians and Russians (Army of Bohemia). Commander: Prince Karl von Schwarzenberg. 65,000 Swedes and Russians (Army of the North). Commander: Crown Prince Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte.

French: 160,000 men. Commander: Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.

Importance

The battle at Leipzig marked the beginning of true European cooperation against Napoleon. Allied victory broke his power, leading to the invasion of France and Napoleon’s abdiction the following year.

Historical Setting

After Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Russia at the end of 1812, during which he lost the bulk of the half-million-soldier army with which he invaded, no one in Europe expected him to recover so quickly. He reached Paris well before the news of the Russian fiasco and was able to immediately build another army by robbing future conscription rolls. That meant that most of the enrollees in the new Grande Armée were barely of military age, but they were nonetheless enthusiastic. Napoleon transferred some veterans out of Spain to stiffen the ranks with experienced fighters and then marched east toward the countries that he had long dominated and who were now organizing against him.

As Napoleon previously had conquered one European country after another, he had forced them into alliance with him. In the wake of the Russian campaign, many of those countries withdrew from their compacts. Although that weakened Napoleon’s hold on northern and eastern Europe, he needed to fear his former allies only if they combined. In early 1813, that seemed somewhat doubtful, as Russia, Prussia, Austria, and a few German principalities such as Saxony eyed each other with suspicion. They looked past the immediate danger of Napoleon’s new army to which power might try to fill the vacuum left by the French emperor’s demise, and that fear of the future almost stopped any short-term cooperation. The primary figure attempting to coordinate an anti-French alliance was Austrian Foreign Minister Karl von Metternich. He had held his post since 1807 and had brokered a marriage between Napoleon and Marie-Louise, daughter of Austria’s Emperor Francis I. In 1813, however, to bring Napoleon down, Metternich was eager to subvert the alliance that he had arranged. Convincing Russia, Prussia, and the other European powers to agree was a slow process. Still, in March, he organized the Sixth Coalition: Austria, Prussia, Russia, Sweden, and Great Britain. Soon 100,000 men were in position between Dresden and Magdeburg.

Napoleon planned to reconquer these enemies in the same way he had conquered them in the first place, by attacking each separately before they could join and present him with overwhelming numbers. He had two major problems to overcome, however. The first was the inexperience of most of his army; the second was the lack of cavalry, most of which had perished in Russia. Without the cavalry, the gathering of intelligence was severely curtailed, and thus his ability to locate enemy forces and defeat them in detail was hampered. Still, he was active in late spring and summer 1813.

On 2 May, Napoleon defeated a Prussian force outside Leipzig at Lützen, but the lack of cavalry meant that he was unaware of an enemy force on his flank until they attacked. He beat them back and occupied Leipzig, but failed to win decisively. The French quickly marched on Dresden and captured that city and then fought the Russians nearby at Bautzen on 20–21 May. Again Napoleon drove his enemy from the field, but again was unable to destroy them. In the two battles combined, both sides lost about 38,000 men each. Soon Napoleon learned of large armies marching on his position from north, south, and east, so he negotiated a truce on 4 June that lasted just over 2 months.

In that time, he continued to mass and resupply his forces, as did his enemies. Metternich met with Napoleon for 9 hours on 26 June in Dresden, but no negotiated peace settlement could be reached. Metternich offered a lasting peace on the basis of Napoleon ceding almost all the territory he had captured outside France’s natural borders. That would mean giving up the desired French border of the Rhine River, as well as French conquests in Italy and Spain. Napoleon, not surprisingly, refused. Metternich later claimed that, to brand Napoleon as the aggressor, he made a reasonable offer that he knew would not be accepted. Napoleon knew he could not accept such an offer and remain emperor of France because his people would not allow their European empire to be taken away from them without a fight. By the time the truce ended on 16 August, both sides had amassed immense forces.

The Battle

Napoleon had 300,000 men in Germany, but he placed a corps in a defensive position at the port city of Hamburg to threaten the Prussian rear and a corps at Dresden (southeast of Leipzig) near the Bohemian (Czech) border. In standard Napoleonic fashion, he had his remaining units spread out to live off the land as much as possible, but near enough together to support one another in case of attack. The allies decided that the best strategy would be to harry Napoleon’s subordinates, defeating them as often as possible while avoiding a major battle until overwhelming forces could be arrayed against him.

This they proceeded to do: Swedish Crown Prince Bernadotte (a former marshal of Napoleon) defeated Napoleon’s Marshal Oudinot at Grossbeeren, south of Berlin, on 23 August; Prussia’s Marshall Gebhard von Blücher beat Marshal Macdonald at Katzbach on 26 August. The enemy being in too many places at once, Napoleon exhausted himself and his men marching and countermarching to aid his subordinates. When he heard of an Austrian attack on Dresden, he forced his young army on yet another rapid move. He beat back the assault, but his worn out troops could not follow up the victory. More such battles took place in September and early October, and then the French withdrew back to Leipzig before allied pressure on all fronts.

On 15 October, Napoleon turned to face Blücher’s advancing Prussians from the north, but soon had to face about and deal with the larger Austrian Army of Bohemia approaching from the south. The Army of Bohemia numbered 160,000 Austrians and Russians commanded by Prince Karl von Schwarzenberg. When day broke on 16 October 1813, the field upon which Napoleon had chosen to deploy his men was covered with mist. Both sides had massed artillery, and that weapon did the most damage. The village of Wachau was the scene of most of the fighting, and it changed hands three times during the course of the day. By noon, Prince Karl’s troops held the town, and then Napoleon launched his own attack. The land across which the armies fought was crossed by a number of streams, marshes, and woods and was perfect for defense. Napoleon, however, wanted to break the Austro-Russian line with massed artillery and then turn left and roll up the allied armies arrayed in a semicircle to the east of Leipzig. Early in the afternoon, he began pummeling the Austro-Russian force with his artillery. After an hour, he ordered his cavalry under Marshal Murat to attack. Murat’s 10,000 men easily pushed back the first enemy troops they encountered, but Russian Czar Alexander quickly ordered his reserves to shift to the southern flank. When they arrived, the French cavalry was exhausted, and the Russian cavalry drove them off the field, restoring the Army of Bohemia’s lines.

As Napoleon attempted to break through in the south, he held the northern flank with minimal force. Marshal Marmont defended the town of Mockern against Blücher’s Prussians in a bitterly fought struggle. Neither Prussian nor French soldiers showed any mercy, and few prisoners were taken by either side. Marmont held the town most of the day, but in the afternoon a chance Prussian cannonball found a French ammunition wagon and the explosion not only demoralized the French troops but wounded Marmont so badly that he had to be evacuated. By day’s end, the Prussians were in possession of the ruins of Mockern.

When the sun set on 16 October, Napoleon had failed to break through the Army of Bohemia and found himself in danger of losing Leipzig to the Prussians. On the next day, however, little fighting took place. Both sides received reinforcement, however, so the battle was merely delayed. For the allies, the Swedes of Crown Prince Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte finally arrived. Had he made haste and been available on 16 October, the numbers may well have been sufficient for the northern French flank to have been overwhelmed and Napoleon trapped. His arrival, however, boosted the allied armies to 300,000 men and almost 1,500 cannon. After a halfhearted attempt at opening negotiations, Napoleon prepared to stage a fighting withdrawal. On 18 October, fighting was once again intense, and he pulled his forces back into Leipzig after a unit of Saxons under French command defected to the Prussians. That night, he ordered his men to retreat westward down the only road available, through the town of Lindenau, where the only available stone bridge across the Elster River was located. It was very narrow, however, and a bottleneck quickly formed. Napoleon ordered a force of 30,000 to remain as a rear guard, but they were unable to retreat across the Elster because of the premature destruction of the bridge. Many French troops died on the bridge or in attempts to swim across the river, and the rear guard was annihilated.

Results

Napoleon’s star, already sinking after the Russian campaign of 1812, finally set at Leipzig. Going into battle with an army less than adequately trained hurt him badly, and the loss of more than 60,000 dead, wounded, and prisoners reduced his force to 100,000 as he retreated toward France. Harassment and desertion whittled that number down to 60,000 by the time he had reached Paris. He still held the throne, but it was only a matter of time before he was forced to step down. The allies, although they also lost about 60,000 men, could better afford such casualties. They also picked up more allies. Bavaria abandoned Napoleon on 18 October, and the Netherlands as well as the collection of principalities that Napoleon had organized into the Confederation of the Rhine both rebelled against his rule in November. On 8 November, the allies once again offered a peace settlement returning France to borders behind the Alps and well back from the Rhine, and foolishly Napoleon rejected the offer. Therefore, on 21 December 1813, the allied armies crossed the Rhine and invaded France. During the first 3 months of 1814, a string of battles was fought across northern France, climaxing in the battle for Paris on 30 March. Napoleon abdicated unconditionally on 11 April and was exiled to the small island of Elba in the Mediterranean.

Napoleon had shown in those battles of early 1814 his traditional abilities to maneuver and win, but each battle depleted his already small forces. After Leipzig, it was a numbers game he could not win. Had he played his cards differently at Leipzig, however, the battle’s outcome could have been altered. Instead of leaving thousands of men defending Hamburg and Dresden, a concentration of forces could have given him the strength he needed to win. Marmont’s force holding the northern flank against the Prussians was woefully small, and with a greater attacking force against the Army of Bohemia in the south he might have broken through and won the battle. As stated earlier, the allies were cooperating but mutually suspicious; a defeat at Leipzig may have crumbled the united front and given Napoleon much more bargaining power.

The allied victory, however, strengthened Metternich’s hand and the result, in 1815, was the Concert of Europe, dedicated to maintaining a balance of power in Europe. That cooperative effort kept European countries from gaining too much individual power and kept them from fighting each other until the Crimean War in 1854. Not until the 1880s did that balance of power begin to fall apart with the ambitions of Kaiser Wilhelm in Germany. The victory at Leipzig not only proved that Napoleon could and would be beaten, but that European nations could and would profitably cooperate.

Action at Saalfeld, (10 October 1806)

The first major confrontation in the 1806 campaign between French and Prussian forces. Marshal Jean Lannes, faced by a smaller force under the command of Prince Louis Ferdinand of Hohenzollern, was given the task of taking Saalfeld. A combination of French tactical initiative and poor Prussian deployment led to the defeat of the Prussian force and to the death of Prince Louis.

Early in the Prussian campaign, Prince Louis commanded the advance guard of Frederick Louis, Prince Hohenlohe’s corps of the Prussian army and was given orders to hold Saalfeld. Lannes, conversely, had instructions to take Saalfeld, provided the enemy were discovered to be numerically inferior to his forces. Lannes duly sent out cavalry patrols to ascertain the strength of the enemy. Prince Louis had deployed his force in three lines, outside the town, but he had made little attempt to occupy the villages on his flanks. The ground was also broken up by a number of streams running in steep ravines down to the river Saale. The river itself was directly to the rear of the Prussian position. As Lannes advanced from the wooded hills to the south of Saalfeld, he was able to observe the entire enemy position. Initially he deployed in skirmish order the first of his troops to arrive on the battlefield, and they quickly advanced under the cover of the ravines. He also deployed a battalion composed entirely of the elite companies (grenadiers and voltigeurs) of his infantry to pin down the Prussians defending Saalfeld.

The French then seized the villages that flanked the Prussian line and began to issue an effective fire on the exposed lines of troops. This bombardment continued for about two hours. By now Lannes had received reinforcements and was determined to attack the Prussian right wing. Prince Louis, realizing that his line of communications was threatened, weakened his center in order to deploy troops onto a low ridge to the right of his main line, called the Sandberg. He then took the decision to launch an attack in the center against a screen of French skirmishers. The troops in the center were Saxons, and despite their bravery in attack they were repulsed by the skirmishers on their flanks and fresh French troops to their front. Having blunted the enemy advance, Lannes began an artillery bombardment before launching his own assault. French troops attacked the Sandberg, which allowed a combined infantry and cavalry assault to be delivered against the Prussian center. The four Saxon battalions there quickly broke.

In an attempt to stabilize the situation, Prince Louis led five squadrons of his own cavalry forward, in the course of which he was killed in single combat by a French sergeant of hussars. The Prussian force was now broken, and in the cavalry pursuit that followed nearly thirty guns were taken, together with 1,500 prisoners. The Prussian survivors were forced to rally 4 miles to the north of Saalfeld. The French victory began to dispel the myth of Prussian invincibility and provided a vital morale boost for the French army prior to the decisive battles to be fought at Jena and Auerstädt only days later.

Wargame: Preparation for Saalfeld 1806

Battle of Poitiers 1356 – Hundred Years’ War I

19 September 1356

On the morning of the battle (19 September), the sun rose a little before six o’clock, the day promised to be warm and clear. Cardinal Talleyrand made a final fruitless visit to the English camp in the hope of preventing a confrontation. Once more, the prince appears to have been willing to seek a compromise but his terms were again rejected by King Jean. After Talleyrand departed and made for Poitiers it was clear that a battle could not be avoided.

The assault does not appear to have been launched immediately as there was time for a discussion in the French ranks concerning the best plan of attack. One reason for this may have been the growing strength of the Anglo-Gascon defensive position. According to the author of the Chronique des règnes de Jean II et Charles V this certainly proved the main reason for the eventual failure of the French assault.

There is some disagreement about whether the English forces were retreating before battle was joined. The delay caused by Talleyrand’s attempts to broker a truce offered the prince an opportunity to escape and he may have been trying to get away right up until the moment of the French attack. It certainly appears that following the decision of a council held the previous evening, the earl of Warwick led his unit and perhaps the entire baggage-train to a position near the marshes to the south of the Champ d’Alexandre and near the ford across the River Miosson. Warwick may have been leading a staged withdrawal. Later, the prince described his intentions:

Because we were short of supplies and for other reasons, it was agreed that we should retreat in a flanking movement, so that if they wanted to attack or to approach us in a position which was not in any way greatly to our disadvantage we would give battle.

This was written after the event and despite the outcome of the battle it does not indicate the prince was looking for a battle at that time, nor did he feel the need to hide the fact that retreat remained an option. It is unclear if the prince intended to withdraw as early as possible or only if the attack proved too strong. Alternatively, Warwick’s manoeuvre may have been a feint to provoke a French attack. If so, it succeeded.

According to what was now normal English practice, the prince had laid out his army in three ‘battles’ (divisions) and had taken what advantage he could of the terrain. The precise location of the battle of Poitiers is highly conjectural and as the terrain played an important part this is an extremely significant issue and one that cannot be completely resolved, especially given that the present wood, river and marshes have, no doubt, altered in the intervening years. It is clear that Jean caught the prince south of Poitiers on the banks of the River Miosson. Edward, it appears, drew his army to some broken ground uncharacteristic of the plains of the area. The three divisions were positioned behind natural obstacles, hedges, trees and marshy areas that allowed the French only two routes of attack. It seems likely that the English army was drawn up behind a no longer extant hawthorn hedge through which there were two substantial gaps (enough for four men to ride abreast, according to Froissart). In front of them a brief slope fell away and then the ground began to rise towards the French lines. This meant that the French could charge downhill much of the way to the English forces but the last few yards were uphill and well protected by the hedge and other defensive contrivances. Furthermore, the gaps in the hedge were protected by archers so that any French troops attempting to break through would have to run the gauntlet of a hail of arrows. In the first phase of the battle, the difficult terrain and the English longbowmen proved more than a match for the cavalry charges led against by the French marshals, Jean de Clermont and Arnoul d’Audrehem.

English battlefield tactics depended on discipline and order in the ranks, and the three Anglo-Gascon divisions were each led by a seasoned commander. The earls of Warwick and Oxford, the captal de Buch, the lord of Pommiers, and several other Gascon barons commanded the first ‘battle’, the vanguard (located, somewhat confusingly in the southernmost position). The prince took charge personally at the head of the second ‘battle’, and he surrounded himself with experienced soldiers such as John Chandos, James Audley, Reginald Cobham and Bartholomew Burghersh. The earls of Salisbury and Suffolk controlled the third division, the rear-guard, composed of one of the main archery units and which included a number of German mercenaries. This defended the largest of the gaps in the hedge.

The French army was drawn up in four divisions and situated some distance from the English, out of bow-shot, perhaps as much as 500–600 yards away. Part of the French vanguard commanded by the constable, Gautier de Brienne, the exiled duke of Athens, fought on foot, while the marshals, Audrehem and Clermont, led a shock cavalry force to test and distract the English archers. The other divisions were to fight on foot. Among the ranks of the vanguard were such soldiers as the lords of Aubigny and Ribemont, and a German contingent under the leadership of the counts of Sarrebruck, Nassau and Nidau. The duke of Orléans, the king’s brother, led another of the divisions, and the dauphin Charles, duke of Normandy, was in nominal command of another unit. As he was only a teenager, the king reinforced this ‘battle’ with experienced soldiers such as the duke of Bourbon, the lords of Saint-Venant and Landas, and Thomas de Voudenay; Tristan de Maignelay was the ducal standard-bearer. The king directed the last French division which included a number of his close relations, including his youngest son, Philippe, and the counts de Ponthieu, Eu, Longueville, Sancerre, and Dammartin. Geoffroi de Charny carried the royal banner, the Oriflamme. In an attempt to prevent a reoccurrence of Crécy and following the advice of the Scottish knight, Sir William Douglas, the bulk of the French army fought dismounted. Douglas brought 200 men-at-arms to serve King Jean.

Phase One

Douglas gave wise advice. Battle such as Courtrai (1302), Bannockburn (1314) and Crécy (1346) showed that discipline, order and close communication were vital elements in launching an assault against an infantry army supported by archers in a well-defended position. In the event the initial French charge was presumptuous, premature and poorly co-ordinated. After the departure of the papal legate to the safety of Poitiers, the command of the French vanguard became divided between Audrehem and Clermont who are reported to have argued over the best course of action; one recommended patience, to which the other made accusations of cowardice. This dispute had been prompted by Warwick’s withdrawal, which may have been either a pretence to encourage the French to attack, or a real attempt to retreat. The French cavalry unit divided in two: Audrehem led his men to engage the prince’s forces at the bottom of the hill while Clermont, perhaps after a short delay, rode against the English at the western edge of the wood. Seeing the assault by the marshals, Warwick returned to the battlefield; he re-crossed the Miosson at the Gué de l’homme and engaged Audrehem’s forces, possibly with the support of a detachment of the earl of Oxford’s archers. The longbowmen were successful, mainly because they could shoot at the unprotected flanks and rumps of the horses. Thereafter Warwick re-ordered his archers alongside the prince’s division. In the meantime, or perhaps a little later, Clermont and the constable, Brienne, charged against the battle led by Salisbury located on the opposite wing at the north-western edge of Nouaillé wood. Salisbury’s archers fired on Clermont’s men as they approached and then the infantry moved to block their approach through one of the gaps in the hedge. The earl of Suffolk supported the defence with reinforcements and the French were driven back; both Clermont and Brienne were killed. On the other flank Audrehem was captured, and Douglas badly wounded. Although by no means apparent at this point, the failure of the French vanguard to break the ranks of the English archers proved decisive. Once again the combination of archers and infantry proved successful. Close-order discipline combined effectively with the ability to disrupt and kill at a distance. Geoffrey Le Baker emphasised the power of the longbow, noting that at relatively short distance, if the angle of impact was correct, the arrows punched through French armour.

Phase Two

After the failure of the initial assault, the dauphin’s division advanced to engage the dismounted Anglo-Gascons and managed to do so despite the onslaught of the English archers. The French forces in this ‘battle’ probably numbered about 4,000 and this crucial part of the engagement may have lasted as long as two hours. Not only did the dauphin’s troops have to contend with the English arrow-storm as they tried to break through the hedge, they were also impeded by the retreating French vanguard. Nonetheless, the dauphin and the duke of Bourbon – another casualty – led their troops to the English lines and a keenly fought struggle ensued. The French were only finally thrown back after both sides sustained heavy losses and the dauphin’s standard-bearer was taken captive. At this point the battle was once more thrown into the balance and it is possible that if King Jean had attacked at once with his remaining forces the outcome might have been different. Instead he decided on a more careful approach dismissing from the battlefield his three elder sons, including the dauphin. However, in addition to lessening the numbers at his disposal, this also weakened morale among many of the remaining French troops. It may have been the sight of the retreating soldiers that caused the division under the command of the young duke of Orléans to flee, in turn, towards Chauvigny, or it may be that Orléans was also commanded to leave the field. In any case, ‘from the moment this large body of troops turned away from the fight a French victory became almost impossible.’

The partial French withdrawal gave the English a moment’s respite to gather themselves, rearm with those few arrows they could collect, and attend to their casualties. At this point, some in the prince’s division apparently thought the entire French host was in the process of retreat and launched an attack in the hope of routing the enemy and taking prisoners. The earl of Warwick may have launched such a premature sortie, and Maurice Berkeley certainly left the English lines in pursuit of booty and glory. He gained neither and instead acquired the unfortunate distinction of being one of very few Englishman taken prisoner at Poitiers – he was captured by a Picard knight, Jean d’Ellenes.

Phase Three

The remaining French troops joined with the ‘battle’ commanded by King Jean and advanced slowly, giving the Anglo-Gascons more time to recover. This substantial force included a large number of crossbowmen who may have originally been part of the constable’s division. These indulged in a long-range missile exchange with the English archers which had little effect on either side. On this occasion, the archers did not make much impact on the main body of the French infantry when it came into range. This was due to a lack of arrows so the English longbowmen could not maintain the barrage, and also because the French approached under cover of an interlinked shield-wall. While effective, this tactic delayed the French advance allowing the English infantry to secure their positions. It is important to note that the majority of this part of the French army was still fresh and had not been involved in any fighting. By contrast the English had been engaged in the conflict, albeit with brief intermissions, for up to three hours. By this point, however, because of the French withdrawals, the English forces probably outnumbered the remainder of enemy.

In response to this slow advance, the Black Prince re-ordered his forces, drawing them together in a single division. He also took the tactical initiative: first, he had some of his men-at-arms remount their horses and prepare to charge the French lines. Second, he commanded the captal de Buch to lead a cavalry detachment in an encircling manoeuvre by which they would be concealed from the French behind a small hill. The longbowmen fired their remaining arrows, although with little effect it seems and then joined the infantry, fighting with daggers and swords. Finally, the prince remounted another contingent of men from his division which charged the French lines. This group may have included James Audley. Once the captal’s men, numbering some 60 men-at-arms and 100 mounted archers, were in position, they, the combined forces of the English division and the remaining cavalry attacked in concert. This final phase of the battle was again a close run affair, but the assault on two flanks ultimately proved successful. The English victory may also have been aided by the return of a number of troops, possibly led by the earl of Warwick who had detached in the pursuit of prisoners earlier in the engagement.

It is somewhat ironic that the terrible consequences of the defeat at Poitiers might have been lessened if the battle had not been so closely fought. If the outcome had been apparent much earlier in the day the French king and many of his high-ranking nobles who were killed or taken prisoner would have had time to retreat. One of the final indications of French defeat was the death of the standard-bearer, Geoffroi de Charny, ‘the most worthy and valiant of them all’ according to Froissart; he fell with the Oriflamme in his hand.5 King Jean himself, finally overwhelmed in the crush of men, was in considerable danger after he surrendered as many men fought over this most important of prisoners. Captured with the king was his son, Philippe. First, Denis de Morbeke, a knight of Artois, claimed the king as prisoner and Jean offered him one of his gauntlets to indicate his surrender. However, a number of others, mainly Gascons led by a squire called Bernard de Troys, then grabbed hold of the king. Fortunately Reginald Cobham and the earl of Warwick then arrived on horseback, forestalling further danger and indignity. They forced back the struggling crowd and guided the king and what remained of his entourage to safety.

With the king taken the battle was finished, and the chase for the remaining prisoners began. Some remnants of the French were routed into the marshes below the original English position, and others fled towards Poitiers, eight kilometres north-west of the battlefield. Englishmen and Gascons pursued them to the walls, which forced the townspeople to close the gates for the defence of the city. A terrible massacre followed outside Poitiers, and many Frenchmen readily surrendered in order to save their own lives.

The number of those Frenchmen captured and killed was very considerable – around 2,500 men-at-arms. By comparison only 40 Anglo-Gascon men-at-arms were recorded as slain, in addition to an undisclosed (and presumably much more sizeable) number of infantrymen and archers. Many more were wounded. One William Lenche lost an eye in the battle and the prince rewarded him with the rights to the ferry in Saltash in Cornwall. Sir James Audley was also gravely wounded, and in recognition of this and his great deeds of arms in the battle he received the most generous reward of all those who served the prince in the expeditions of 1355–6, an annuity of £400.

With considerations of strategy completed and the battle won, the prince invited all the captured nobles to dine with him. The prince himself served the king’s table, and all the other tables as well with every mark of humility, and refused to sit at the king’s table saying he was not yet worthy of such an honour, and that it would not be fitting for him to sit at the same table as so great a prince, and one who had shown himself so valiant that day. Such courteous behaviour set the seal on what became the Black Prince’s almost legendary reputation, but this was a courtesy and chivalry only appropriate after a battle; it was also courtesy due to those of noble and royal blood, and, of course, it was courtesy to a relative.

The victory at Poitiers and the capture of Jean immediately changed the diplomatic and political balance of Anglo-French relations, but to what extent and how far would be the subject of hard bargaining. Geoffrey Hamelyn, the prince’s attendant, was sent to London with Jean’s tunic and helmet as proof of his capture. The army returned to Bordeaux and negotiations began regarding a truce and the exact value of a king’s ransom.

Battle of Poitiers 1356 – Hundred Years’ War II

unknown artist; The Battle of Poitiers, 19 September 1356; Kirklees Museums and Galleries; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-battle-of-poitiers-19-september-1356-22080

Animated Maps: Poitiers 1356, the Battle

Analysis of the Battle

The sources for the battle of Poitiers are difficult, often contradictory and lacking detail. They include chronicles and campaign letters which need to be used in conjunction with cartographic and landscape evidence although with the understanding that contemporary geographical features are not identical to those in 1356. In particular the extent of marshland around the Miosson and the size of the wood of Nouaillé must be conjectural. More significantly for the purposes of reconstructing the initial disposition of troops, the length and position of the hedge and ditches which protected the Anglo-Gascon position is especially problematic. There have been many attempts to describe the battle, and many of these have been consulted in the present study alongside a range of contemporary and near-contemporary sources. Any reconstruction must be conjectural because of the nature of those sources, and not all questions have been resolved satisfactorily. The key problem lies in the initial disposition of English and French forces after which the course of the battle is somewhat more straightforward. The battle plans provide an interpretation of the encounter but some evidence will be cited at length so that the reader may come to his or her own conclusions.

A number of campaign letters were written concerning the engagement but most of these, such as Burghersh’s dispatch recorded by Froissart, merely noted the names and number of casualties and prisoners taken and that the battle took place half a league from Poitiers. The prince himself wrote to the mayor, commons and aldermen of London on 22 October but provided no information concerning the disposition of troops, merely noting that ‘our very dear and beloved knight Nigel Loryng, our chamberlain, who is bringing this [letter], will tell you more in detail from his own knowledge.’8 The situation prior to the battle is best described by the Anonimalle Chronicler.

‘That night [Saturday, 17 September 1356] the prince encamped with all his army in a wood on a little river near the site of the defeat … On Monday morning … the Earl of Warwick crossed a narrow causeway over the marsh … but the press of the carriage of the English army was so great and the causeway so narrow that they could hardly pass and so they remained up through the first hour of daylight. And then they saw the vanguard of the French come towards the Prince … And so the Earl of Warwick turned back with his men’

It appears that some of inherent contradiction in the sources can be resolved if the events they describe are considered to have been contracted or expanded over time. Such a possibility should be considered when reading Geoffrey Le Baker’s account below. This provides an explanation for the suggested positioning of the prince in a northerly location along the wood. Le Baker suggests Edward first camped around the south and then moved north, perhaps making a camp on the hill to the north of the wood. From there his forces were repositioned along the western edge of the wood protected by the hedge that may have run along much of the length of the road. The gaps described may have been made by the carters mentioned. According to Geoffrey Le Baker:

…he [the prince] surveyed the scene, and saw that to one side there was a nearby hill…Between our men and the hill was a broad deep valley and marsh watered by a stream. The prince’s battalion crossed the stream at a fairly narrow ford and occupied the hill beyond the marshes and ditches where they easily concealed their positions among the thickets, lying higher than the enemy. The field in which our vanguard and centre were stationed was separated from the level ground which the French occupied by a long hedge and ditch, whose other end reached down to the marsh. The earl of Warwick in command of the vanguard, held the slope down to the marsh. In the upper part of the hedge, well away from the slope, there was a certain open space or gap, made by the carters in autumn, a stone’s throw away from which our rearguard was positioned, under the command of the earl of Salisbury.

Some further details are provided by the less-than-reliable Jean Froissart, but his evidence cannot be ignored.

‘And how are they disposed?’ asked the King. ‘Sire’, replied Sir Eustace [de Ribemont], ‘they are in a very strong position…They have chosen a length of road strongly protected by hedges and bushes and they have lined the hedge on both sides with their archers, so that one cannot enter that road or ride along it without passing between them. Yet one must go that way before one can fight them…At the end of the hedge, among vines and thorn-bushes between which it would be impossible to march or ride, are their men-at-arms … It is a very skilful piece of work.’

This reasonably detailed description is confusing. Froissart suggests the Anglo-Gascons were arranged along a road which was strongly protected by hedges – an approach I have followed. His comment that these were lined with archers so that any assault had to pass between them requires some assumptions about the positioning of a gap and therefore the disposition of the archers. This gap was only wide enough for four men to ride abreast. Presumably, if one accepts this account, the archers were drawn up behind a hedge facing the French, and this hedge was bisected with a road and/or the carters’ track. There were also archers at either end of the hedge arranged in a formation that Froissart describes as being in the form of a ‘herce’, possibly a triangle or ‘harrow’ shape. This can be explained by the archers under Salisbury to the north and those commanded by Warwick to the south.

One of the reasons for the prince’s success in 1356 and indeed for many English victories during this phase of the Hundred Years War was the composition of the armies that encountered the French. This developed from the salutary lessons the English had received at the hands of the Scots from the early years of the fourteenth century. The war that the English fought in France was a mobile one that struck at the social and economic foundations of the Valois kingdom and yet allowed for the possibility of a set-piece encounter. The evolution (if not revolution) in military thinking that had taken place since Edward I’s reign had created an increasingly professional army, one recruited to perform specific tasks. Troops were recruited after 1347 almost entirely through the indenture system by which captains signed up to lead a particular number of soldiers armed to particular specifications to implement a range of strategic and tactical plans. The prince’s forces at Poitiers and during the chevauchées of 1355 and 1356 consisted of three types of troops: men-at-arms, horsed archers, and footmen. This allowed for an extremely flexible tactical response to a variety of situations.

The Anglo-Gascon army was probably composed of 3,000–4,000 men-at-arms, 2,500–3,000 archers, and 1,000 other light troops. The French army may have included 8,000 men-at-arms, 2,000 arbalesters, and numerous poorly trained and lightly armed troops totalling some 15,000-16,000 soldiers.

Hence, Jean could raise fewer men for Poitiers than his father, Philippe VI, had ten years before at Crécy, but contemporaries did not attribute defeat to a shortage of manpower. Rather, and particularly by the author of La complainte sur la bataille de Poitiers, blame was heaped upon the nobility. The very raison d’etre of the nobility was to defend the patria – the homeland; they held their exalted social position because they had been appointed by God to that sacred task. They were, in traditional feudal parlance, the bellatores – those who fought – and if they failed in this role, they failed in their primary function and duty. It is significant that the revolt of the Jacquerie which occurred in the anarchy after Poitiers targeted the French aristocracy. It was not, like the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381, a reaction to economic and social impositions. Rather it was a violent response to the general failure of the nobility to fulfil its traditional role.

In addition to the failure of French chivalry (the warrior aristocracy), were other, more prosaic reasons for the defeat. One of these was the lack of missile weapons Jean had at his disposal, and that those crossbows he had were inferior to the English longbow. Crossbows could do considerable damage, but they were slow and clumsy weapons compared to the longbow. Furthermore, the English had been allowed time to prepare their defensive position. The army was well dug-in behind earthworks and used the natural protection of the hedge and wood – they had the terrain in their favour. ‘Par son recrutement, et plus encore par sa préparation immédiate, la petite armée du prince de Galles était dans les meilleures conditions pour vaincre.’

The English were drawn up in three major ‘battles’. Warwick and Oxford led the Anglo-Gascon vanguard with the captal de Buch, and Salisbury and Suffolk commanded the rearguard. The bulk of the prince’s retinue was in the centre led by Edward, with Burghersh, Audley, Chandos and Cobham. The archers, perhaps defended by earthworks, were stationed on the flanks and possibly at right angles to the enemy because of the nature of the herce formation (on the battle plans depicted as a ‘harrow’). As at Crécy, the longbowmen proved extremely effective against mounted troops, but less so against infantry advancing in close formation – that is until the French were at close range when the longbows with their heavy draw-weights could punch through French armour. However, the length of the battle meant that arrows were in short supply after the opening salvos.

The French army was in its entirety considerably larger than the Anglo-Gascon force, perhaps twice its size, but Jean did not take full advantage of his greater strength. The French divisions attacked in turn not en masse, and Orléans fled or was dismissed before engaging the enemy. Consequently, in many of the phases of the battle the prince may have not been at any sort of numerical disadvantage.

The victory at Poitiers combined the defensive tactics, witnessed by the prince at Crécy, with the chivalric traditions of an earlier age. After the failure of the French attacks against his infantry, Edward responded with a classic heavy cavalry charge. To add a more modern flavour to this tradition, the flanking force led by the captal de Buch may have included mounted archers and possibly Gascon crossbowmen. The battle was thus a fine illustration of the use of dismounted troops who, as at Crécy, in concert with archers in a defensible position, broke the French attacks, then remounted and defeated the enemy with a cavalry attack, which was now uncommon, if not anachronistic.

Although the outcome of the battle seems clear, it is uncertain whether the prince ever intended to fight a battle, certainly at least under the conditions in which Edward found himself. If a meeting with Lancaster had been achieved then the combined English force would have been formidable and the prince could have anticipated a victory. Certainly, English battle strategy had proved very effective in several encounters, Crécy not the least. Had additional forces and resources been available, and the arrival of the Black Death not precluded further military action, then the 1346–7 campaign and the victory at Crécy might well have yielded far greater spoils than Calais and the ransoms of a few and deaths of many of the French nobility. With this experience in mind it seems extremely likely that the prince actively sought a battle in the 1355–6 expeditions, but he wished to fight on his own terms and against an enemy whom he felt confident of defeating. The concessions the prince was willing to make prior to the battle and some of his remarks made afterwards suggest he lacked confidence early on the morning of Monday 19 September. However, once the victory had been achieved it influenced not only further military tactics but also broader political strategy. The English had now demonstrated in both Scotland and France that if they could bring an enemy to battle on their own terms then they could win: that confidence coloured wider aspirations in the Hundred Years War. The struggle that previously had centred on sovereignty in Gascony, became, albeit briefly, about sovereignty over the entire kingdom of France.

After the defeat at Crécy (as well as Courtrai (1302) and Morgarten (1315)), the French had made several attempts to combat those devastating infantry tactics. At the battles of Lunalonge (Poitou, 1349), Taillebourg (near Saintes, 8 April 1351), Ardres (6 June 1351) and Mauron (14 August 1352) the French used infantry and dismounted men-at-arms in greater numbers. They also endeavoured to find a weakness in the opposing infantry–archer formation. In the event these approaches proved ineffective or were not put into action at Poitiers and the defeat destroyed the French illusion that relatively minor military changes could be effective. As a consequence, for a generation, French commanders avoided battles with the English whenever possible. The contrast between the French response in 1356 with that of 1359–60 is very clear. During that campaign defensive tactics allowed them to turn the tables on the English by denying Edward the crown. Later they were able to reverse the territorial gains the English had gained through the treaty of Brétigny. This was only possible when they had an easily-assailable military objective – the principality of Aquitaine.

Archers and the Longbow

The role of the longbow in the early campaigns of the Hundred Years War is a contentious matter. A number of issues are open to argument and interpretation, ranging from the nature of the weapons themselves, their power and rate of accurate fire, to the disposition of the archers on the battlefield. In part, the trouble lays in the fact that no extant medieval longbows remain. The earliest examples are those reclaimed from the wreck of the Mary Rose. If these were finished longbows representative of those used at Poitiers then they were formidable weapons indeed with an effective range of 300 yards or more. By contrast, the wooden or composite crossbows of the time could shoot about 200 yards, and for every quarrel a bowman might fire up to ten arrows. Thus, well-trained longbowmen with a sufficient supply of arrows could, if this is an accurate interpretation, cause a great deal of damage and disruption to an enemy attack. What is not in doubt is that archers became an increasingly important component in English armies in the course of the Hundred Years War. The proportion of longbowmen to other troops was regularly three, four or five to one, and sometimes reached as high as twenty to one. However, the ‘invincibility’ of the longbow has been questioned in recent years. It is argued that, rather than causing a great number of casualties, archer fire caused the enemy either to be funnelled into a particular area where the English infantry defences were at their strongest or simply to disrupt the assault so that the enemy did not prove as great a threat.

Longbowmen alone did not win the battle of Poitiers (or those of Crécy and Agincourt) but they were a critical component of the armies that secured those victories. When working alongside infantry and with a final cavalry charge to rout the enemy they proved, whether through the number of casualties that they inflicted or through the sheer scale of the disruption they caused, to be an extremely effective military asset. The manner in which they were used and disposed on the battlefield is, however, somewhat uncertain.

The formation and disposition of the archer corps was described by Froissart, a la maniere d’une herce which according to Oman and Burne was a triangular formation with the apex facing the enemy placed between divisions of dismounted men-at-arms. This is based on the translation of herce as harrow. Alternatively, the archers may have been placed on the flanks, or in the shape of a candleabrum or a horn-shaped projection on the wings of the army, or a hedgehog possibly using stakes or pikemen for protection.

It appears likely that troop dispositions were not standard but dependent on a number of contingencies. At Crécy, the archers seem to have been used on the wings in a forward flanking position. They may have begun the battle beyond the front rank of dismounted troops to allow them to gain a little extra range, but they could have a more mobile role, and after the enemy approached they may have fallen back to the flanks curving slightly forward to provide crossfire. In this position they would not have provided the vanguard with much protection. Because of the numbers involved and the lie of the land in 1346 it may be that the front was almost a mile in length. This allowed only a very light defence of the prince’s division (the vanguard) which, at Crecy, fought in the centre. Formations at Poitiers are less certain but again archers seem to have been used on the wings and targeting, when possible, the less armoured flanks and rears of the French infantry and cavalry.

Whatever the formation and disposition of longbowmen and whatever the nature of the bows themselves, archers formed an integral part of the English tactical system from the 1330s onwards; seeking to slow or disrupt an enemy advance. At Crécy, the bowmen proved very effective against the French cavalry, and at Poitiers against dismounted men-at-arms at close range. These battles also showed the superiority of the longbow over the crossbow in terms of effective range and rate of fire. The success of the archers in Scotland and at Crécy made a profound influence on English tactical thinking and on the Black Prince and his retinue, many of whom first saw military service in 1346. Consequently, the battle of Crécy laid the foundations for the battle that was fought outside Poitiers ten years later and it influenced the structure of the Anglo-Gascon army both proportionally and tactically.

The importance of archers and their longbows was such that they became the subject of a number of governmental ordinances. In 1357 and 1369 the export of bows and arrows was forbidden, and in 1365 archers were forbidden to leave England without royal licence. In 1363, instructions were issued requiring everyone, including the nobility, to participate in regular archery practice. The use of the longbow, a popular, not aristocratic weapon, demonstrated the need of the king to draw on the support of all levels of society in his (at least theoretical) quest for the French throne.

The success at Poitiers also influenced the composition of English armies in France in other ways. The Reims campaign (1359–60) witnessed the full emergence of the mounted archer and establishment of mixed retinues (men-at-arms and archers). This in turn led to a shift in the social composition of the military community as knights and mounted men-at-arms became less significant in the degree to which they might influence the outcome of a battle. Further, heavy cavalry was not conducive to conducting wide-scale, extensive raids. Lightly armed mounted troops, by contrast, gave the necessary mobility that allowed them to participate fully in chevauchées and for such raids to become engrained as the predominant strategy, while a balanced troop composition allowed for an effective and flexible tactical response to a variety of military situations. Such forces were particularly effective when used in defensive positions, preferably prepared in advance or chosen for their advantageous terrain and natural features. The massed power of the archers could thin out the enemy at a distance and slow their advance, and disciplined infantry would deal with any opposing forces that reached the front line.

However, the longbow was not all-powerful and the tide began to turn against the English in the Hundred Years War as the French continued to experiment with various tactics to negate its influence on the battlefield. Longbows did not have quite the same impact in 1356 as they did at Crecy, partly due to the French use of dismounted troops advancing slowly under cover of their shields. Charles de Blois and Bertrand du Guesclin at Auray (1364) further demonstrated that close formations of well-armoured soldiers could provide a less easy target. However, on both occasions the French were defeated, although mainly because of the disciplined fighting of the infantry who were entrenched in a well-defended position. Once du Guesclin became constable of France he employed what were essentially guerrilla tactics and refused to be brought to battle. If it could not be employed in substantial numbers against an enemy willing to take the initiative to attack then the longbow was all-but useless.

Franz Joseph’s Empire, Sisi, and Hungary I

Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph with his troops at the Battle of Solferino, 1859

On 6 October 1849, the former prime minister of Hungary, Count Louis Batthyány, was taken into the courtyard of the main gaol of Pest. An Austrian military court had condemned him to hang for treason on account of his role in promoting Hungary’s independence, but he had slit his throat several days earlier in an unsuccessful attempt at suicide. So the court changed the penalty to death by firing squad. Batthyány was so weak that he had to be carried to the place of execution; he died slumped on a chair. Several hours before, at five thirty AM, thirteen generals in what had been the army of independent Hungary were also executed in Arad Castle on the same grounds of treason, the majority by hanging. The noose was a harsh punishment, for death came not from the sudden breaking of the neck but from slow suffocation. It was intended to be humiliating, too, for the victim writhed in his agony and, at expiry, his bowels usually opened.

The executions of Batthyány and the generals came at the end of a bloody war between Hungary and the Habsburgs that had begun with Jelačić’s invasion. The country had held out for almost a year—its resources and Hungarian population ably mobilized by Kossuth and its armies expertly commanded. Even so, it was only in April 1849 that the Hungarian government proclaimed the country’s formal independence, deposing ‘the perjured house of Habsburg’ and appointing Kossuth governor and regent. Until then, Hungary’s politicians had held by the conviction that they were acting lawfully, in accordance with the terms of the April Laws, as granted by Emperor Ferdinand.

Finally, in June 1849 a Russian army invaded Hungary at the request of the new emperor, Franz Joseph (1848–1916). With the Austrian general von Haynau pressing from the west and General Paskevich’s Russians from the north, resistance collapsed. Kossuth meanwhile escaped into the Ottoman Empire. For the remainder of his long life (he died in 1894), Kossuth inveighed against Habsburg rule in Hungary, electrifying audiences in Great Britain and the United States with his oratory. His claim that he had learned English from reading Shakespeare in prison may not be true, but the story enhanced his reputation and the cause of a free Hungary. Visiting England in 1851, Kossuth received a rapturous welcome, feted by tens of thousands in every city in which he spoke. By contrast, when Haynau came to London, he was set upon by the draymen of Barclay and Perkins brewery, pelted with dung, and chased down Borough High Street.

The killing of Batthyány and the generals was the work of the young Franz Joseph, who rejected his ministers’ proposal of a comprehensive amnesty. But the emperor was not yet finished with ‘the scaffold and the bloodbath’, as one former prime minister put it, and he gave Haynau free rein in Hungary. A hundred executions followed, and several thousand long gaol sentences. Even when the Austrian prime minister, Prince Schwarzenberg, ordered Haynau to desist from killing, he carried on, until finally dismissed in July 1850. Haynau was sufficiently insensitive to buy on retirement an estate in Hungary. He never understood why his neighbours did not invite him to dinner.

Emergency rule continued in Hungary until 1854, and some offences remained under the jurisdiction of military courts for several years longer. On top of this, Hungary’s counties were abolished and replaced by administrative districts headed by appointees of the interior ministry in Vienna. Croatia, Transylvania, and the Banat together with the neighbouring Vojvodina were additionally ruled separately from Vienna as crown lands. All institutions of self-government were abolished, and German was made the language of administration. Tasks previously performed by the counties and noble landlords were now undertaken by bureaucrats, many of whom were recruited from elsewhere in the Austrian Empire.

The breakup of Hungary into districts ruled from Vienna was part of a plan that Schwarzenberg (or at least someone close to him) had hatched as early as December 1848. Developments elsewhere were more haphazard. As one of his first acts, Franz Joseph had closed the imperial parliament that had been meeting in Kroměříž. In the early hours of 7 March 1849, troops with bayonets had entered the castle where the parliament met and blocked the entrances, after which they had scoured the city, arresting several of the more radical deputies. In place of the constitutional proposals the parliament had devised, Franz Joseph imposed a constitution of his own, which as he explained was more suited to the times and less influenced by remote and theoretical ideas.

The Decreed or March Constitution was in some respects a good one. It was centralist in the sense that it envisaged one elected parliament for the whole of the Austrian Empire, including Hungary, a single central government, and one coronation. Although the emperor retained strong powers, there were layers of elected bodies, which possessed a devolved authority. The constitution additionally confirmed the abolition of serfdom previously agreed by the imperial parliament, legal equality, and that ‘all national groups are equal and that every national group has an inviolable right to the use and cultivation of its language and nationality.’

For all its merits, the constitution was a cynical ploy. Franz Joseph was out to make his mark, and he was lured by Schwarzenberg’s dream of joining the entire Austrian Empire to the German Confederation to create a massive new territorial bloc in Central Europe, in which the Habsburg emperor would be politically dominant. To win over the German princes to the scheme, Franz Joseph needed to appear as a constitutionalist who was ready to be bound by legal constraints. But by the middle of 1851, it was clear that the German rulers would not agree to a merger with the Austrian Empire, preferring to renew the Confederation set up after the defeat of France in 1814. By this time, too, Franz Joseph was casting envious eyes on Napoleon III of France, who had, as the emperor admiringly described, ‘seized the reins of power in his hands’ and made himself much more than ‘a machine for writing his signature.’

Implementation of the March Constitution went at a snail’s pace, and its provisions on local elected government were drastically pared back. Finally, on New Year’s Eve 1851, Franz Joseph issued a series of instructions, known collectively as the Sylvester Patent, that abolished the March Constitution outright and gave himself the sole right to make laws. (31 December is St Sylvester’s Day; a patent was a type of decree.) The coup was completed after the death of Schwarzenberg in April 1852, when Franz Joseph declared that he would now act in the capacity of prime minister.

The Sylvester Patent introduced a decade of neo-absolutism or neo-Caesarism, when Franz Joseph ruled as a dictator. Both terms are recent ones—at the time, the type of government practised by Franz Joseph was known simply as absolutism or more tellingly as bureaucratic absolutism, for the emperor imposed his will through the administrative apparatus. But the bureaucrats also had their own political agenda, which was to maintain the reforming programme of Joseph II, with its belief in the wisdom of state management and in social and economic progress directed from above. They even had a name for themselves: the ‘party of Enlightenment.’

Altogether, the Habsburg civil service numbered in the 1850s around fifty thousand persons, but this included junior and ancillary staff. About ten thousand belonged to the higher ‘policy service’ (Konzeptdienst), and almost all of these had received a university education, mostly in law. Those in the higher branches were overwhelmingly liberal in disposition and outlook, and disproportionately represented in the reading clubs and, during 1848, in the politics of reform. They were liberals in the sense of believing in individual empowerment, through education, legal equality, freedom of the press and of association, and the removal of economic constraints. They saw a strong state as the vehicle for a liberal programme of reform and were prepared to make concessions to it—press freedom was an early casualty. But by endorsing state intervention, the bureaucrats ‘fattened the state up’, turning it into a Leviathan that devoured the individual freedoms that their liberalism had originally championed.

The achievements of bureaucratic absolutism were massive—as one historian has put it, ‘a Josephinist fantasy come true.’ There were new institutes of science, regulations on safety in mines and the workplace, a penny-stamp postal service, new roads, telegraphs, and railways. By 1854, a thousand kilometres of track had been laid, and the Linz to České Budějovice (Budweis) line, originally built in 1832, was converted from horse to steam power. For the roads, almost ten million cubic metres of stone were laid in just three years. Experts recruited from the London Board of Works helped to dredge and canalize the Danube and Tisza rivers. Infrastructural expansion was underpinned by burgeoning coal and iron production, by a developing banking sector for commercial loans, and by the removal of customs barriers that made the Austrian Empire into a common market. Vienna, too, was transformed, with the old city walls torn down and a spacious ‘Ring’ built in its place to house the new class of entrepreneurs and industrialists created by economic modernization.

The peasantry had been freed by Joseph II in the sense that they were able to leave the land and marry without the lord’s consent. But the land they farmed still belonged to the lord, on which account they owed him dues and services performed by hand. In the early months of the revolution, the Hungarian diet had committed itself to giving the peasants the lands they farmed, but elsewhere promises were vague and piecemeal, with the terms of emancipation deferred until the imperial parliament met. The difficulties were that the lords needed some sort of compensation for their loss and that the land that the peasants farmed was of varying legal quality—some was ancestral peasant property, farmed over generations; other land was leased from the lord under contract, or else it was common land or had been cleared by the peasant personally from scrub.

The imperial parliament had shirked its obligation to facilitate emancipation by hiding behind generalities. After 1849, however, the government made a determined attempt to resolve the issues arising from emancipation. Ancestral land became the peasants’, in its entirety, with no compensation paid to landlords. All the rest was compensated for, with the state bearing the brunt of the burden, which it did through the expedient of printing bonds and distributing them slowly. The terms of compensation were worked out by commissions, and the new landowning peasants were obliged to enter details of their properties in land registers. These also recorded liens—whether the property was now leased out or mortgaged—and neighbours, kinsmen, and lenders frequently challenged the contents of the registers. The courts in Hungary alone were in the second half of the century handling seldom fewer than three hundred thousand cases a year of disputed entries, with a backlog extending to over a million.

In the past, minor disputes such as these would have gone in the first instance to manor courts, but with the abolition of landlordism had also gone the landowners’ courts and their gratis contribution to the administration of the countryside. The state had now to fill the gap, establishing across the empire 1,500 new courts and supervisory offices. Bureaucrats were despatched to the countryside to see to the implementation of directives from the centre. Their task was a hard one. The interior minister, Alexander Bach, ordered civil servants in Hungary to buy an uncomfortable uniform based on a Hungarian cavalryman’s, but it cost half a year’s salary and earned them ridicule as ‘Bach hussars.’ Underresourced and living in shabby conditions, they found it impossible to reconcile their obligations with the day-to-day realities of the countryside. Arriving in one Hungarian village, a ‘Bach hussar’ found there to be no prison: convicts were instead lodged unguarded in an inn and given a daily allowance for food.

Bach’s instructions for the civil service stressed the importance of stability, routine, and predictability of outcome in the legal and administrative process. To that end, the Austrian civil law was extended in the 1850s across the whole of the Austrian Empire, replacing in Hungary and Transylvania the arcane and largely unwritten customary law. But to meet local circumstances, the law had to be modified and adapted, thus robbing it of its regularity and uniformity. On top of this, the medley of official circulars, formulary books, clarifications, edicts, and modifications emanating from the centre rendered the law even less certain and its application in individual circumstances unpredictable. Bewildered bureaucrats frequently referred up, so that even trivial matters ended up on Bach’s desk, never to be resolved.

But there was uncertainty at the top too. Franz Joseph was unaccountable, unconstrained by either institutions or a constitution. He was inept but convinced in his own superior wisdom. In an example that shocked the British ambassador, he insisted in early 1852 that a cavalry parade take place on the cobblestones before the Schönbrunn Palace in a deep frost, even though warned of the danger. The horses toppled, killing two cuirassiers. Franz Joseph’s handling of foreign policy was equally calamitous. He did not support Tsar Nicholas in the Crimean War (1853–1856), thus letting down the ally who had come to his rescue in 1849, but neither did he back the British and the French against Russia. Diplomatically isolated, he was now prey for Napoleon III of France, whose army swept through Lombardy in 1859, assigning the province to the kingdom of Piedmont in exchange for France taking Nice and Savoy. It did not help that halfway through the campaign Franz Joseph appointed himself commander. His generalship led directly to the bloodbath of the Battle of Solferino. Two years later, having overrun the Habsburg-ruled duchies of Parma, Modena, and Tuscany, the king of Piedmont was proclaimed king of Italy.