Despite reading numerous books and wargame guides I struggled to understand clearly how Napoleon and the French and Coalition armies moved during the 1814 defense the Paris campaign. My Kindle Houssaye facsimile edition has no maps and Wikipedia doesn’t help if you’re not familiar with the map of Northern France. And to complicate matters further, armies moved back and forth, sometimes battling in or near the same towns.
I think I now have the grand picture, thanks to one of the few good wargame guides, ‘The Last Days of the First Empire’ for the Fate of Battle/Look Sarge, No Charts: Napoleonic Wars series, by David Wood and Buck Surdu. I bought the book via Caliver and I can recommend it, it’s less detailed and different from the ESR campaign guide that I reviewed earlier, but in chronology and campaign description better. Here’s the grand picture.
In late December 1813, three Coalition armies started to cross the Rhine:
- The Army of Bohemia or the Grand Army, with 200,000-210,000 Austrian soldiers under Prince Schwarzenberg, passed through Swiss territory (violating the cantons’ neutrality) and crossed the Rhine between Basel and Schaffhausen on 20 December 1813.
- The Army of Silesia, with 50,000–75,000 Prussians and Russians under Prince Blücher, crossed the Rhine between Rastadt and Koblenz on 1 January 1814.
- The Army of the North, of about 120,000 Prussians and Russians, under Wintzingerode and Bülow, and Dutch troops under Prince Bernadotte, was to move in support on the right flank through the Netherlands and Laon (in the Picardy region in northern France). This force was not yet ready and did not, in fact, reach Picardy until March.
The French mobilized and marched toward the east.
- The first battles were between Napoleon and a combined Prussian/Austrian force near Brienne and La Rothière (1) 29 January/2 February. Napoleon couldn’t stop that force, only slow down.
- The Prusso/Russians then moved north-west to Champaubert-Vauchamps-Montmirail (2). Napoleon catched up and caused havoc to the exposed flanks of the scattered enemy. That’s the 6 days campaign (the maneuvers between 9-15 February, leading to a string of victories, followed by Montereau success).
- In the meantime, the Austrians slowly advanced westwards, but were on 17-18 February hit hard by Grouchy and Napoleon who had rushed from Vauchamps to Marmons/Montereau (3). Cautious Schwarzenberg retreated to Arcis-sur-Aube. Napoleons subordinates were too slow and/or too weak to corner Schwarzenberg.
- Napoleon now hurried northwards to corner the Prusso-Russian force before Blücher could cross the Aisne and get reinforcements from the Coalition Army of the North. The French commander of Soissons however surrendered to the Prussians and Blücher and his force regrouped near Laon and Craonne (4). Napoleon battled at Craonne and Laon (8-9 March) with the stronger Prusso-Russians. Both sides failed to win decisively.
- Napoleon retreated to Rheims and retook it (5) on 13 March, hoping to thwart the communication between the Prussians and the Austrians.
- On 20 March Napoleon tried to defeat the Austrians at Arcis-sur-Aube (6). Schwarzenberg waited for reinforcements and had 80.000 troops vs Napoleons remaining 28.000 men. He was slow and Napoleon escaped, Berezina-style.
- The Prussian and Austrian army converged and defeated the French rearguard at La Fere Champenoise (7) on 25 March
- Napoleon gambled: he struck eastward to threaten the Coalition supply lines and hoped to draw away their armies from Paris. The Coalition however intercepted his communication and decided to march to undefended Paris, guessing that the fall of Paris would mean the political end of Napoleon. To mislead Napoleon about the true plan and prevent an attack on their supply line, they kept a cavalry screen in the east near St Dizier (8). Napoleon won the battle here (26 March) and then learned about the Fère=Champenoise defeat. He was too far away to reach Paris in time.
- On 30 March, after small firefights, Paris surrendered (9) and Napoleon abdicated.
THAT is the whole story. It’s a series of battles that is more interesting and more a nailbiter than the 100 days, although no British troops or Wellington were involved 🙂