Was Jean-Claude Moreau the bad guy?
The story so far: 1814, allied armies try to capture Paris. Blücher aka Marschall Förwarts is annoyed by his slow marching Austrian allied general Schwarzenberg and moves too deep into enemy territory on his own. Because he wants to take Paris first, and quickly.
The Allies move in 3 groups:
- a Northern Russian/Swedish army, with Wintzingerode as CiC that comes from the Ardennes:
- a Prussian army in the center, with Blücher:
- and an Austrian army that threatens Paris from the south-east.
The allied attack is slow and lacks coördination. Just as later in 1815, Napoleon exploits the gaps between the enemy armies and hopes to defeat them one by one.
Here’s the grand strategic February map, with Blücher and Schwarzenberg
Napoleon swiftly attacks Blüchers Silezischen Armee and defeats him by surprise in a series of battles between 10-14 february (Champaubert, Chateau-Thierry, Vauchamps). Blücher escapes and retreats to Chalons-sur-Marne.
In the meantime the Austrians, although slowly, had advanced towards Montereau. With forced marches Napoleon brings his main army to the south, now threatening the flank and line of communications of the Austrians. Napoleon’s troops walk two marathons in one and a half day. The alarmed and cautious Schwarzenberg retreats to Troyes. The February 18 battle of Montereau is an Austrian rearguard action. Although the Austrians are defeated there and in Bray and Nogent, they buy enough time to fall back on Troyes. Blücher comes to the rescue and holds Méry-sur-Seine. Schwarzenberg entrenches himself near Bar-sur-Aube.
The allies now come with plan B: Blücher wants to connect with the northern/Wintzingerode army and will threaten Paris from the north-east. The Austrians will relaunch their march on Paris when Napoleon has left. Blücher turns north-east and again threatens Paris.
Napoleon now has to hurry to defeat the Prussians once again, before they can unite with Wintzingerode. As you see on map 2, the Prussians move towards Laon via La Ferté/Lizy/Prouy (again threatening Paris), and cross the Aisne to unite with Wintzingerode near Laon. Napoleon’s plan is to catch up, cross the Aisne near Fismes (he expected a battle with Blücher there) and reach Laon before Blücher does.
Enter bad guy Jean-Claude Moreau. Moreau (not to be mistaken with general Jean Victor Moreau) is the French commander of the small Soissons citadel that overlooks the Soissons bridge over the Aisne river. A first Prussian/Russian attack on the citadel fails. The Prussians then send an envoy to Moreau and offer him to hand the citadel to the Prussians, on honourable terms, ‘saving lives and plunder’.
Moreau should have answered ‘nuts’, but to the horror of historians and strategists, he capitulates, giving the Prussians free passage to Craonne and Laon where Wintzingerode waits. Napoleon wanted Moreau to be tried and publicly shot in Paris for treason.
What if Moreau had not capitulated? Soissons commanded the main road from Paris to Mons, and was considered an important strategical point. Houssaye, the 19th century French military historian, writes:
The Emperor’s anger was natural; he himself said that the capitulation of Soissons saved Blücher’s army; Marmont was of opinion that the fate of France and the issue of the campaign turned upon Soissons holding out for thirty-six hours; and Thiers has stated that, next to the battle of Waterloo, the capitulation of Soissons is the most disastrous event of French history. These opinions are perhaps exaggerated, but it cannot be denied that the surrender of this town saved Blücher’s army from disaster.
(Houssaye, Henry. Napoleon and the Campaign of 1814)
Houssaye is highly critical of Moreau. “His orders were to defend Soissons, and it was not his business to criticize them; his duty was to carry out his orders to the letter”. He describes how, after the bluffing Prussians offer to capitulate ‘on fair terms’, the ‘weak’ Moreau climbs the stairs of the church tower to ‘examine the enemy positions’. Houssaye:
When we remember Moreau’s attitude during the negotiations and consider his character, we cannot help coming to the conclusion that, when he climbed those 354 steps in order to examine the enemy’s positions for the last time, the commandant of Soissons was more anxious to find some justification for a prompt surrender than to see whether a further defence might not be possible. Moreau’s guilty imagination showed him many things which did not exist
Houssaye, Henry. Napoleon and the Campaign of 1814 . Kindle Edition.
Soissons capitulates, the Prussians cross the Aisne and link with Wintzingerode unhindered. The subsequent battles on the north side of the Aisne (Craonne, Laon) are a strategic and a total defeat for the French. The Empire is lost. Napoleon gambles with a quick march behind enemy lines to the east, hoping to draw the Austrians and Prussians away from Paris, but they don’t fall into the trap, unite before Paris and capture the city (31 March).
So did this capitulation single-handedly kill the Empire? Houssaye thinks so, because if the Prussians had not been able to cross the Aisne in time, Napoleon would have catched them under very favourable circumstances. However Houssaye, in this monograph, seems to have the point of view that the military genius Napoleon was during this campaign abandoned or hindered by treacherous or plain stupid subordinates. Moreau is just another example.
The British Napoleonic historian Francis Petre is less Bonapartist. Moreau is of course guilty of “dereliction of his obvious duty by surrendering the place without another fight” but was this capitulation the nail in the coffin? Petre:
Bllicher crossed by the stone bridge and by three pontoon bridges. It took him twenty-four hours or more. If he had not had Soissons, he would still have had his pontoon bridges, and a bridge (not passable for wheeled traffic) at Vailly (…) Even without the Soissons bridge, he would certainly have been over by the morning of the 5th. Could Napoleon have stopped him if Soissons had held out ? (…)
Napoleon expected to find Blucher at Fismes (…) he had nothing nearer to Blucher than Grouchy’s cavalry, which was opposed by Blucher’s. The nearest French infantry of the Emperor’s own force was at Fismes, some seventeen miles from Soissons, and about ten from the Vailly footbridge. Under these circumstances, how is it possible to believe that Napoleon could have cut off any large portion of Blucher’s army south of the Aisne by the morning of the 5th, the latest time at which the allies would have been crossing, even if they had not had the Soissons bridge ?
The capitulation saved Blücher anxiety, but was not the single cause of the downfall of the empire. Petre points at mistakes made by Napoleon himself, his overoptimism that clouded his judgment and limited military intelligence that hampered both sides, including the pursuit of Blücher by Napoleon.
Moreau – a veteran of the Napoleonic wars who fought bravely at the Berezina – was like so many generals tired of the war. Marmont, a month later, betrayed Napoleon and surrendered his corps. Ney in Fontainebleau stood up against him. Moreau’s capitulation was a case of bad generalship. But a turning point? That is, was, will ever be, no doubt, Leipzig.
Moreau survived, by the way. When Moreau was awaiting trial, Napoleon abdicated. He became a departemental commander in the Restoration army. Napoleon maintained him on that commission during the 100 days (!) Moreau retired in 1815 and died peacefully in 1828.