On 26 February 1815 Napoleon escaped from his captivity on Elba and began his return to power in France. On 13 March 1815, the victors of the Napoleonic Wars: Austria, Great Britain, Prussia, Sweden, and Russia, were attending the Congress of Vienna dividing up the spoils. Upon news of Napoleon’s return, they declared him an outlaw and formed the Seventh Coalition. On 19 March, King Louis XVIII fled Paris with his court to Belgium.
On 20 March 1815, Napoleon triumphantly entered Paris at the head of an army of 90,000.
So began The Hundred Days.
From March through July 1815, the fate of Europe, and dare I say Western Civilization, hung in the balance. At the bloody end of the Age of Enlightenment, would the 19th Century belong to the Constitutional Monarchists or the Enlightened Despots? Would it belong to Britain or France? The Rule of Law or the Rule of Whim?
The world would find out 111 days later outside of a tiny Belgian town called Waterloo.
During Napoleon’s invasion of Saxony and Prussia in October 1806, both the Grande Armee and the Prussian Army were moving north on opposite banks of the Saale river. On 13 October 1806, Lannes V Corps came into contact with Prussian troops at Jena. Napoleon correctly concluded that the Prussian Army under King Frederick Wilhelm III and the Duke of Brunswick was to the west of the Saale River and ordered his corps to cross the Saale. Napoleon wished to bring the Prussian Army to battle on the Landgreffenburg, the plateau west of the Jena. Most of the Grande Armee crossed the river at Jena, but two of Napoleon’s corps, Davout’s III and Bernadotte’s I Corps, were to cross downstream at Koessen. From there, they were to surprise and strike the Prussian Army from the north.
Boldy falling upon the flank of Napoleon’s adversaries in battle after a long forced march was a task in which Davout was not a stranger. He executed the exact same mission with aplomb the previous year and assured the destruction of the Austrian and Russian armies at Austerlitz. If there was anyone in the Grande Armee that Napoleon could trust with such a difficult mission, it was Davout.
Louis-Nicholas Davout was born of minor French nobility from Burgundy. Despite his noble heritage, he survived the French Revolution when most of his peers were sent to the guillotine. A trained cavalryman, he thrived in the ranks of the French Revolutionary Army through unimpeachable integrity, uncompromising discipline, unmatched military skill, and frankly just being a bit ‘arder than his contemporaries. Davout didn’t look the part: he was prematurely balding and disdained the foppery of French officers. Davout had no time for anything that didn’t directly affect military efficacy. Napoleon, like most French senior officers, despised him at first meeting, mistaking Davout’s self-confident competence for arrogance, aloofness for pride, and utilitarian uniform for shabbiness. However, Napoleon quickly recognized that Davout was not one for the salon, but for the battlefield. When the Revolutionary government forced Davout out of the army due to his noble family, Napoleon overrode them and promoted him to general of division. He arranged Davout’s marriage to his sister in law, just to get him into the family. For these acts, Napoleon gained Davout’s undying loyalty. When Napoleon became emperor in 1804, Davout was one the few generals raised to Marshal of the Empire despite being the younger (34) than his contemporaries and one of the least experienced. He was one of the few Napoleonic commanders who saw the difference between “looting” and “foraging”, punished the former with death, correctly surmising that looting just slowed the columns down. For his tough and exacting training standards, moral incorruptibility, and unrelenting discipline, Davout quickly became known as the “Iron Marshal”.
Napoleon’s confidence in Davout was not misplaced though it would be tested during the invasion of Prussia. Davout was already passed Jena and was 15 km to the north when Lannes made contact there with the Prussian Army. The Grande Armee’s turn west put Davout’s III Corps on the far right but in a position to turn the Duke of Brunswick’s flank, if possible. To do so, III Corps would have to march north to cross the Saale at Koessen then turn south and take the Prussians from the flank and rear. Davout’s men would have to march all night to complete the 50 kms route. Come dawn on 14 October 1806, II Corps was making good time on the road from Koessen toward Auerstadt and Apolda to decisively affect the Battle of Jena.
However, Davout would never make it there. He and his 27.000 strong corps were marching southwest on the same road that the 70,000 strong Prussian main army was marching on northeast towards Leipzig. In the same dense fog that affected every movement at the Battle of Jena, neither side was aware of the other, but a clash was inevitable.
At the village of Hassenhausen, Davout sent his aide-de-camp Colonel Jean-Raymond-Charles Bourke with a detachment of light cavalry to assess the road ahead. They spotted Brunswick’s advanced guard, General-Lieutenant Gerhard von Blucher’s division of cavalry with the King of Prussia Frederick Wilhelm III at its head as if he were a Roman Consul riding in a triumph. About the same time, Prussian cavalry, considered at the time the best in the world, spotted Davout’s 3rd Division, under Gen Charles Gudin advancing on Hassenhausen. Blucher convinced Brunswick that he should immediately attack. The fog would allow his cavalry squadrons to surprise the French and defeat them before they could form squares. Blucher advanced with ten squadrons and brushed aside the Gudin’s screening light cavalry
Unfortunately for the Prussians, Bourke’s reconnaissance and Gudin’s retreating cavalry gave just enough warning for the veteran French infantry to form squares. In less than a minute, Gudin’s exposed columns were a patchwork of immobile bayonet tipped squares, and a minute after that surrounded by Prussian cavalry. A horse, no matter how well trained, won’t charge a wall of bayonets. The Prussians were reduced to riding past firing their pistols or attempting to slash their way through with sabers, all the while receiving volleys from the back ranks and canister from the guns at the corners. One square was broken up by dismounted dragoons and horse artillery but most of its inhabitants managed to withdraw to another square. The sole Prussian success of the engagement was the exception that proved the rule that mounted cavalry couldn’t break an established infantry square. Every time the cavalry reformed amidst the squares, they were hammered by French volleys. Blucher’s cavalry was forced to fall back. The massive casualties among the Prussian cavalry neutralized them for the rest of the battle.
The defeat of the feared Prussian cavalry skyrocketed the morale up and down Davout columns.
Brunswick orders his infantry forward to engage the French and closed with Gudin’s men. However, Gudin was in a strong position. His men occupied Hassesnhausen and turned it into a stronghold with defensive lines to the north of the village. More Prussian troops followed behind, but since Brunswick rode up and down the Prussian line inspiring his men, their officers couldn’t find him in the confusion of the battle. So they stopped and waited for instructions as to where to place their men in the line. Brunswick was forced to place them himself while the French filled in the line as needed. Furthermore, Gudin’s men in Hassenhausen had a better line of sight over the battlefield and could observe Prussian movement. The Prussians could not do the same.
Anchored on Hassenhausen, Gudin took on all comers but, even disorganized, the Prussian numbers began to be felt. Gudin had no troops to the south of the town and the Prussians were slowly enveloping the French left. Davout’s 2nd Division, under Gen Louis Friant formed his men to the right of Gudin and caused a panic among the Prussians as Brunswick was pushing the French left. However, the sight of French troops to the north of Gudin and French cavalry even further northwest, threatened his own left flank. Brunswick sent his highly capable chief of staff, Gehard von Scharnhorst, to sort out the north while he continued to individually place regiments in the south. Though the Prussians vastly outnumbered the French, Davout’s commanders were simply quicker to get into the line. Two thirds of Davout’s corps were fighting the Prussians while barely one third of Brunswick’s army was in the fight.
At 9:30 am, disaster struck the Prussians. The Duke of Brunswick was shot in the head and taken from the battlefield. The king took personal command. There was a reason Brunswick was in tactical and operational control of the army, King Frederick Wilhelm III was not an able military mind. He knew his limits, but with Brunswick mortally wounded he felt honor bound to take command. With Scharnhorst out of contact to the north, and the Brunswick’s subordinate commanders unwilling to step up and assist the king, paralysis wracked the Prussian Army.
Brunswick’s last commands were carried out and a massive Prussian force attempted to bypass the town to the south, but it was spotted from Hassenhausen and Davout diverted troops to block it. Nonetheless, by 11 am Davout’s two divisions were hard pressed. Morand’s division was still enroute and Bernadotte’s corps was nowhere to be seen. Because of his control of the commanding views from Hassenhausen, Davout knew he was facing the Prussian main army and accurate numbers of what he faced. He sent a report to Napoleon at Jena, who curtly told the Colonel Falcon, Davout’s aide and messenger, that “Your marshal is seeing double!”
The arrival of Morand’s 1st Division to the south of Hassenhausen around noon provided much needed relief for the Gudin in the town, then fighting on three sides.. The Prussians on the right were expecting to be reinforced from the Prussian reserve, 15,000 men under Count von Kalkreuth. However, one of Friant’s brigades along with Davout’s corps cavalry turned the Prussian right and seized the town of Poppeln, far behind the Prussian lines. In an army with outstanding division commanders, Davout trained his hardest, and Friant was by far his best. The Prussian line bent dangerously backwards under Friant’s relentless assault. Kalkreuth, with two fresh divisions at Auerstadt, but without orders, recognized the danger and decided to retake Poppeln instead of reinforcing the line. With the Prussian reserves occupied elsewhere, the sight of the fresh French troops of Morand’s division broke the Prussians opposite Hassesnhausen who had been fighting for nearly four straight hours without reprieve. Like Napoleon, the Prussian king thought he faced his adversary’s main army, so he ordered a withdrawal to reorganize his own army, identify a new commander, and fight at a better location.
Davout sensed the Prussian weakness and ordered all of his units to immediately attack. What began as a small trickle of Prussian troops fleeing to the rear became a flood. Any semblance of Prussian order dissolved in the narrow streets of Auerstadt. The Prussian retreat tuned into a rout as the king’s army encountered the remains of Hohelohe’s army fleeing west and north after being defeated by Napoleon at Jena. Only French exhaustion prevented Davout’s men from pursuing the Prussians. Not that it really mattered, even Prussian formations who had no contact with the French broke and fled for their lives.
That Davout did not show up to the Battle of Jena was one of the final indicators that Napoleon was not fighting Prussia’s main army. Bernadotte made the same mistake and instead of supporting Davout, turned around and headed toward Jena, missing both battles. It was rumored that Bernadotte deliberately chose not to support Davout who was clearly Napoleon’s favorite after the Battle of Austerlitz. A defeat for Davout at Austerlitz would have brought him down a notch and not affect Napoleon at Jena since Bernadotte could block any Prussian advance south. Whatever the case, Davout won a great victory against the odds, while Bernadotte got an ass chewing that many believe began his road to betrayal.
Davout didn’t need Bernadotte, but his casualties would have been lighter had the future King of Sweden followed and supported. Davout’s III Corps endured 7500 casualties, about one quarter of his corps, but he defeated over 70,000 Prussians, almost twice what Napoleon faced at Jena. Napoleon, ever the narcissist, attempted to downplay Davout’s victory at Auerstadt in favor of his at Jena in official dispatches back to Paris. But Davout’s victory was so overwhelming and against such great odds that even Napoleon couldn’t deny it. He awarded Davout the title of “Duke of Auerstadt”. When the Grande Armee triumphantly marched into Berlin ten days later, it was Davout’s III Corps that marched in the van.
It was said later that “Napoleon won a victory that he could not lose and Davout won a victory that he could not win.” The quote overly simplified a series of complicated engagements. The Battle of Jena was far closer than it seemed with the fog limiting Napoleon’s understanding of the battle. It was Napoleon’s corps system and his subordinates’ proclivity to concentrate and march to the sound of the guns and the Prussian hesitation to do the same that won Jena. The Battle of Auerstadt was far closer than the numbers suggest. Whereas Davout and superstar subordinates efficiently and effectively got the most out their men, Prussian disorganization and paralysis negated their superior numbers.
The French pursued the surviving elements of the Prussian Army across the country, isolating them and never giving them a chance to reorganize. Hohenlohe surrendered after the Berlin fell, Ney captured Magdeburg after a short siege of its garrison reinforced with Jena/Auerstadt refugees, and Blucher was pushed out of Lubeck in a last desperate stand by the remains of the Prussian Army. The Battle of Lubeck was a taste of what the Prussian Army was capable of in competent hands.
The French victories at the battles of Jena and Auerstadt thoroughly humiliated the Prussians and laid to rest once and for all who was the true heir of Frederick the Great. The defeats shattered the idea of Prussian invincibility and directly led to a series of reforms and retirement of the elder Prussian officers. The mass exodus of Prussian officers that came of age in the mid-18th century gave way to a new generation of dynamic reformers. Led by Scharnhorst and Blucher, and consisting of great military minds such as Neidhardt von Gneisenau and Carl von Clausewitz, among many others, the reformers identified the reasons for the Prussian losses and French victories. They remade the Prussian Army into one that defeated Napoleon in the battles from 1813 to 1815. Their contributions to military theory are still felt today.
Napoleon landed in France on 1 March 1815 after escaping from his exile on Elba. He and his 1000 strong staff and honor guard took a circuitous route north through the French Alps to avoid the royalist sympathizers in the Riviera.
On 5 March 1815, the small army approached the pass at Laffra, just outside of the city of Grenoble. Directly to its front was the veteran 5th Infantry Regiment, six ranks deep, led by royalist officers, completely blocking the pass.
For five tense minutes, the regiment silently faced off against Napoleon’s troops. Then the ranks of the lancers and guards parted as Napoleon himself approached the 5th. One royalist officer gave the order to fire but none did. Napoleon moved closer. At 50 meters he stopped and said,
“Soldiers, I am your emperor. Know me! If there is one of you who would kill his Emperor, here I am”.
He then threw open his great greycoat and invited them to shoot.
The solders of the 5th abandoned their weapons and rushed Napoleon shouting ‘”Vive l’Empereur!”. They deserted the recently restored Bourbon monarchy en masse.
The event was stage managed to a degree. Staff officers and soldiers went forward the night before to let the 5th Infantry Regiment know what would happen if Napoleon was shot. It was an offer they neither could nor would refuse.
Two days later the 7th Regiment went over and soon Marshal Ney, Napoleon’s “Bravest of the Brave”, joined with an army of 6000. Thousands more flocked to the march every day. Though many were new recruits, many tens of thousands were former prisoners of war captured by Napoleon’s enemies over the past 20 years and recently repatriated back to France. King Louis XVIII and his court fled the country and Napoleon entered Paris on 20 March at the head of an army 100,000 strong.
Napoleon went into exile after his defeat and abdication from the throne of France in 1814. In the ensuing nine months, the victors: Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, Russia, and Sweden, squabbled among each other and nearly went to war several times over the spoils of the French Empire. Furthermore, the restored Bourbon monarchy wasn’t paying Napoleon his stipend as per the Treaty of Fortainbleu and Elba simply wasn’t producing enough in taxes to maintain his household. In early 1815, with political chaos on the Continent and financial difficulties on Elba, Napoleon thought the time was ripe for his return to power.
On the night of 26 February 1815, Napoleon slipped away from his exile on the small Mediterranean island of Elba. He departed on the brig “Le Inconstant” and a small flotilla of ships with his staff and the 800 strong honor guard that he was allowed to keep on the island. His British minders on the island didn’t find out until two days later.
On 1 March Napoleon landed near Cannes on the French Riviera and marched on Paris, carefully avoiding Royalist strongholds particularly Provence, while simultaneously gathering troops along the way.
In 1805 during the War of the Third Coalition, Emperor Napoleon I decisively defeated the Austrians and Russians at the Battles of Ulm and Austerlitz resulting in the Treaty of Pressburg, which ended Austria’s participation in the war. Without Austrian protection, the Kingdom of Naples was vulnerable and a combined French, Swiss, Italian, and Polish Army of Italy under French Marshal Andre Massena invaded. The Anglo-Russian forces in Italy abandoned the Kingdom of Naples and the Neapolitan Army was crushed at the Battle of Campo Tenese. Bonapartist rule replaced Bourbon on the Italian peninsula until the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
With the end of the War of the Third Coalition, Napoleon turned his attention to creating a German buffer state between France and his traditional enemies, Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Napoleon created the Confederation of the Rhine of German states nominally part of the Holy Roman Empire. The Confederation states withdrew from the Holy Roman Empire and the French Empire formally became known as the “Protector of the Confederation of the Rhine.” Napoleon elevated the two largest, Bavaria and Wurttemberg, to vassal kingdoms within the French Empire and removed them as Electors of the Holy Roman Empire. Napoleon forced Austria, defeated and dejected, to dissolve the Holy Roman Empire, which had stood for a thousand years since its creation by Charlemagne in 800. The creation of the Confederation and the dissolution of the HRE were slaps to the face of the proud Prussians.
Napoleon overran Austria and defeated Russia so quickly that Prussia stayed neutral in the War of the Third Coalition. In recompense for their loss of influence with the dissolution of the HRE and loss of some territory to the Confederation, Napoleon gave the lands of former British ally Hannover to Prussia. In the summer of 1806, Napoleon was caught negotiating the return of Hannover to Great Britain without including Prussia in the negotiations. It was the final insult for the Prussian war faction, led by Queen Louise, and they convinced Kaiser Frederick Wilhelm III to mobilize the army. Not wanting to wait, the Duke of Brunswick convinced the king to attack the French cantonment areas before the French could invade, supported only by the army of the small Kingdom of Saxony. After the Prussian Army mobilized it moved into Saxony and the king issued an ultimatum to Napoleon to withdraw all French troops from the German states.
Napoleon’s Grande Armee was garrisoned in the Confederation of the Rhine. Napoleon refused the ultimatum, and the Prussians invaded. The armies of Prussia’s ally Russia were still far to the east, and unable to come to Prussia’s aid. Napoleon ordered his marshals to advance their corps into Saxony and Prussia immediately. The rapidity with which the French troops assembled from their garrisons and moved across the frontier into Saxony astonished the Prussians, who planned to fight the French in Bavaria and Württemberg, not Saxony or Prussia.
Napoleon’s corps were standardized, self-sufficient, combined arms formations of about 25,000 men consisting of infantry divisions, and cavalry and artillery brigades, with supporting specialists such as engineers, pontoon bridges, and supply trains, all under a trusted subordinate capable of independent command. These commanders were Napoleon’s chosen ones: the Marshals of France, and they were promoted strictly on merit and military efficacy. Generals could be political appointees or promoted because of birth, such as Napoleon’s brother Jerome, but never a marshal. The 26 men chosen over the years by Napoleon to be Marshals of France came from all walks of life, and were a collection of talent and ability rarely seen in history. Only the Diadochi, the Apostles, the Genghis Khan’s generals, the viziers of Suleiman, the Sun King’s advisors, and the Founding Fathers occupy the same historical pedestal. Napoleon trusted his marshals implicitly to carry out his mission orders and did not micromanage them with directives. With the self-sufficiency and inherent initiative of the corps system, and without the burden of a supply tail due to the French Army’s liberal use of foraging, the Marshals and their corps maneuvered much quicker and with more agility than France’s enemies.
Prussia, like the Russians and Austrians, still maintained the army-level unit, an unwieldy formation of about 100,000 men, as the lowest level of synchronization and integration between combined arms. The Prussian Army of 1806 was nearly the same army created by Frederick the Great sixty years before and they had been riding on that reputation ever since. As Carl von Clausewitz pointed out, “Behind the fine façade, all was mildewed.” King Frederick Wilhelm III himself commanded though he had the Duke of Brunswick make all of the tactical and operational decisions. The size of all of the King’s subordinate commands were based on their commander’s rank and noble title, with the cavalry’s disposition and composition based solely on its commander’s noble title. Through some misguided half-reforms, the Prussians created divisions but they had too much cavalry and artillery since their composition was based on the prestige of the commander. This over compensation i.e. more is better, made the divisions difficult to move, and diluted the striking power of the cavalry and artillery, thus the need for army level coordination. With no standardization in units above brigade, these commands were unwieldy and their movements ponderous and use of the road network inefficient. The Prussian staffs were overly bureaucratic, and riven by poisonous rivalries common in staffs accustomed only to garrison operations. There were two generals staffs, one established for decades that ran administration and the recently approved operational staff. Neither had priority over the other and saw each other as rivals. Both of the staffs worked at cross purposes. Senior commanders, most nearly twice the age of their French counterparts, spent much time untangling the mess, usually by committee since Brunswick wanted to stay above the fray. The result was a Prussian army more concerned about internal politics than fighting the French. In September 1806, the combined Prussian and Saxon armies advanced on the Thuringian Forest to invade the Confederation of the Rhine, but by then the French were prepared. The Prussian dithering cost them an entire month, which was more time than Napoleon needed to mobilize the Grande Armee.
Simultaneously with the Prussian invasion, Napoleon’s Grande Armee advanced into Saxony threatening Leipzig, and from there, Magdeburg, which would cut off Berlin. On three parallel routes, each of its seven corps moved north within a day’s march of each other over routes carefully reconnoitered by scouts. The seven corps advanced in a rough arrowhead with three corps on the middle road, two each on the east and west roads, and Napoleon and the Imperial Guard in the middle. Napoleon famously called it “a gigantic battalion box”. The Prussian Army was not capable of this feat of disciplined cohesive movement born of precise and efficient staff work. Several days into their march south, the Prussian Army was forced to concentrate on Erfurt for the final push into Bavaria. There, Brunswick learned of Napoleon’s nearby invasion of Saxony. Napoleon was pushing north to the east of the Prussians as the Prussians, to the west of the French, were passing the French while pushing south.
Brunswick hoped to threaten Napoleon’s flank and defeat him piecemeal as he passed, but the speed and agility of Napoleon’s corps left him out of position. The Grande Armee moved too quickly and any opportunity to attack passed. So Brunswick ponderously turned his army back north to find somewhere to defeat Napoleon, he had no choice but to fight. Through just good staff work, the French Army severed communication between Brunswick and his capitals, and more importantly, from any assistance from the Russians.
The first battles with Prussians at Auma, Schleitz and Saalfeld in early October 1806 were the first indications that the Prussians were to the west across the Saale River. The aggressive assault by the Prussian vanguard at Saalfeld by the unusually competent Prince Louis Ferdinand convinced Napoleon that the main Prussian Army was west of the Saale. On 13 October, Lannes’ V Corps made contact with a large Prussian force at Jena, which they forced back across the river. Napoleon, assuming Lannes found the Prussian main body, concentrated the Grande Armee. Napoleon’s seven corps quickly shifted toward the river crossings to seize and cross before the Prussians could defend them. Napoleon wanted to bring the Prussian Army to battle, but not force the river. If the Grande Armee moved quickly enough, it could catch the Prussians by surprise on the Landgrafenburg, the plateau west of Jena, which was where they had to camped. Napoleon, Soult, Augereau, and Ney, led by Lannes’ V corps crossed the Saale at Jena, while Davout supported by Bernadotte were to cross further downstream and fall on the Prussians from the north.
Jena was a university town and home of the German romanticists, and the home of the nascent unified German culture. The town was generally pro-Napoleon and saw La Grande Armee as the vanguard of the modernizing French Revolution come to rescue Germany from feudalism. The French sacked the town and accidentally burned it to the ground while foraging.
The Prussian Army had to be found. But before that could even happen, Napoleon’s corps needed to occupy the Landgrafenburg, the high plateau west of Jena to form a proper battle line. To get there, a perpendicular narrow ridge needed to be traversed by the French and this formed a natural choke point. On the morning of 14 October, 1806, Lannes already had a toehold on this ridge, which his men seized the night before. Neither this ridge nor Jena and its vital bridge over the Saale were defended by the nearby Prussian force under the Prince of Hohenlohe, nor were the French attacked while in this vulnerable position. These failures were even more unconscionable since the Prussians knew the French were in Jena the night before. Unhindered, Lannes’ scaled the ridge and formed a battle line on the Landgrafenburg.
The fog on the morning of 14 October 1806 was all pervasive. Lannes’ light infantry and cavalry scouted further west and found Prussian troops of von Tauentzien’s reinforced flank guard division. Lannes immediately attacked and destroyed von Tauentzien’s divison which fled west, while a detachement under Holtzendorff retreated north. Lannes succeeded in making room for the four more corps and the Imperial Guard coming up behind him.
The French attack came as a surprise to Hohenlohe. One of his subordinates, Gen-Lt Gravert marched his division to the sound of the guns but was halted by Hohenlohe and chastised. Hohenlohe, from his headquarters in the Kappelburg Castle, was not prepared to fight a major engagement yet and his staff had not prepared the necessary orders. Gravert convinced Hohenlohe that he was in a battle whether he liked it or not. The Prussians deployed in a battle line opposite the town of Vierzehnheilegen which they thought (correctly) was between Napoleon and themselves.
After the destruction of the flank Prussian division, Napoleon also halted his attack. He knew the rest of the Prussian Army was to the west of him but not where – the fog was too thick. As Augereau’s VII Corps arrived to the left of Lannes and Soult’s IV Corps to the right, Napoleon ordered forward his light infantry and cavalry to find the Prussians while the rest of the army waited in the fog. Napoleon’s light infantry occupied the town of Verzehnheilegen and watched Hohenlohe’s columns ponderously turn into a line facing the town.
(I honestly can’t adequately convey the complexity of this Prussian maneuver. The training time to execute this parade ground drill on command must have been massive. It’s a combination of column right by file from the left into a right facing line. Whereas the French did a simple “right flank, march”, the Prussian method maintained that the first file (on the left) must always be the file facing the enemy, thus the complicated drill when the enemy was on the right.)
Hohenlohe’s orders from Brunswick were to not become decisively engaged as his mission was to screen the flank of the main army 30 km away. Brunswick headed north on a parallel route to Napoleon to find another position to fight the French. When Napoleon agilely crossed the Saale at Jena, he thought that the main army was to the west or, optimistically, the Prussian left flank guard. The destruction of Tauentzien’s division and Holtzendorff’s cavalry earlier in the morning lent credence to this theory. But Hohenlohe wasn’t the vanguard or even the left flank guard, but the right flank guard, with the main Prussian army 30 kms away marching north, not south. Moreover, they were marching on roads they just passed over a few days previously going in the opposite direction. The closest Prussian units to Hohenlohe wasn’t the main body but the Prussian reserve bringing up the rear of the main army. Hohenlohe wasn’t going to attack the French, but he wasn’t going to run away either, thanks to Gravert. Unfortunately for Hohenlohe, the Prussian main body was marching further away every minute.
The first indications that the French were nearby since the firing stopped were Tauentzien’s routed formations streaming through the line. The broken men did little for the morale of Hohenlohe’s battle line but iron Prussian discipline held the men in formation. Hohenlohe advanced the formation forward until they came within sight of Versehnheilegen. Astonishingly, the French light infantry, or voltigeurs, spread out in the meadows just outside of the town. Unlike the Prussian line infantry, or French line infantry in close formation, the French light infantry used all of the cover and concealment that the town and gently rolling fields offered. Every copse of trees, every fold of ground, every orchard tree, every hedge, wall, building, and window hid voltigeurs, who weren’t going to stand and receive the disciplined Prussian volleys.
The Prussians had no effective counter as the concept of light infantry was practically alien to them. They understood the need for open order skirmishers but unlike the French, the Prussians light troops were trained in highly ritualized and rigid open order formations, which were almost never used. Open order troops were seen as diluting the decisive firepower of the line. The initiative and trust needed by a light infantryman was an anathema to the harsh and rigid discipline required by the line. To Prussian officers in 1806, placing that much trust in infantry in open formation was tantamount to obliging them the opportunity to desert. The Prussians did form a “jaeger” regiment armed with rifles who were trained to fight in open order, but they were considered an elite, and recruited from the upper and professional classes. Their loyalty was never suspect, but there was only a single regiment of them in the entire Prussian Army of 1806. In the Grande Armee, there was one specially trained voltigeur company per regiment, but all French infantry were expected to competently perform in any formation, whether column, line, line, or square, or open or closed. Revolutionary fervor, meritocratic officers, and the daily realities of foraging ensured that French infantry operating in an open formation would not desert, at least in 1806. Napoleon said later that La Grande Armee of 1806 was his finest.
The French voltigeurs took a terrible toll on the Prussian line, particularly the officers. Hohenlohe formed a vanguard to clear the menace, and hearing them being shot to pieces, pushed artillery forward to sweep the fields and town with canister. The Prussian infantry could nothing but impotently fire ineffectual volleys to their front, as the voltigeurs aimed and shot at a mass that they couldn’t miss.
By 11 am, both the literal and figurative fog of war crippled both sides ability to understand what was happening. Hohenlohe, with orders not to become decisively engaged, knew he had lost a division, but only had light infantry to his front and no idea where the French main body was, or even if it was nearby. With less than 30,000 men under his command, he needed to be sure what was in front of him, lest he be flanked and destroyed. Napoleon had three full corps coming on line, Soult, Lannes, and Augeraeau, the Imperial Guard (corps equivalent) in reserve with Murat’s cavalry corps and Ney’s corps moving into position. Nevertheless, the fog prevented Napoleon and his commanders from understanding what they faced. The integral corps cavalry was desperately groping about in the fog trying to find more Prussian infantry than the 30,000 or so opposite Vierzehnheilegen. Lannes, in the center, attempted to shake things up around the town by probing the Prussian line, but was repulsed. In the fog, Napoleon couldn’t commit his now 96,000 man army until he knew where the Prussian main body was. He assumed it was close, not marching north away from Jena.
The Battle of Jena was at an impasse. The late autumn Central European fog, which didn’t seem to dissipate in the midday sun, gave the battlefield an otherworldly glow. In the bright fog, Napoleon couldn’t attack until he found the Prussian main body and Hohenlohe couldn’t attack because he wasn’t the Prussian main body. The Grande Armee continued to arrive.
Ney’s VI Corps was the Grande Armee’s rear guard and the last to arrive at Jena. Augereau was shifting to face the Saxon division idling at Innerstedt on Hohenlohe’s far right. The situation in front of Vierzehnheilegen was chaotic but the Saxons were a tangible threat. Augereau didn’t know that the Saxons didn’t have the propensity move. They weren’t in the best of spirits, their supply lines were cut with Leipzig and the Prussian supply trains were in administrative chaos. The Saxons were last in priority. In accordance with the gentlemanly rules of 18th century limited warfare, the Saxons and Prussians were forbidden to forage. Some of the Saxon regiments hadn’t eaten in two days. They were content to hold Innerstedt and allow Augereau to build up to their front.
Marshal Ney arrived with his advanced guard and cavalry ahead of his main body about 10 am, leaving his infantry to come up as fast as they could. He was seething to get into battle. Napoleon told him to place his corps to the right of Lannes in the gap with Soult. But Lannes and Soult were already in contact, Napoleon just couldn’t tell in the fog. So Ney rode over the battlefield looking for a place for his corps, he found one in the gap between Augereau and Lannes south of Vierzehnheilegen. Without telling Napoleon, he rode directly for the ground he unilaterally decided his corps was to occupy.
The fog induced stalemate would shortly end at the hands of Napoleon’s fiery red headed marshal.
As Augereau shifted, the impetuous Ney took his cavalry forward and immediately got mixed up in the light infantry fight in front of the town. Most of his corps was still marching through Jena, while his cavalry was cutting and slashing its way through the fog. One chasseur squadron broke a Prussian cavalry squadron covering several batteries of artillery firing on the town, and then turned the guns on the Prussian line. The Prussian line was ordered to fire on the cavalrymen, the disorganized Prussian cavalry and the French cavalry looked similar in the fog, and many Prussians refused to fire. They had standing orders to fire on any Prussian “deserters” but the French cavalry that looked like Prussians weren’t deserting, and the retreating Prussians weren’t obviously deserting. No one could tell where the artillery was coming from, whether their own captured guns, or French guns in the distance. And all of that with the simple reality that death could emerge from the mist at any time, and regularly did so to their comrades all around them. The situation was massively confusing for Prussians.
The confusion caused by Ney’s aggressive “reconnaissance” of his self appointed position in the line had two major effects. First, the entirety of the Prussian cavalry was neutralized. To avoid further confusion, Hohenlohe moved his squadrons into the line, as if they were infantry. The cavalry was ill-suited to the task of static defense, but were easily controlled, extended his line further, and could be used to clear light infantry when the Prussian line advanced. Ney’s provocation convinced Hohenlohe he had to stabilize the Vierzehnheilegen situation or he wouldn’t have any officers left. The Prussian Army was uniquely dependent on officers to control the men. Hohenlohe realized the need to act or the situation would spiral out of control and his command would be destroyed in the fog by light infantry and cavalry. He decided to attack. He ordered his cannon to fire incendiaries on the town to prevent the French from turning each building into a stronghold. And once the town was in a significant conflagration, he ordered his command to advance and clear everything to their front.
The order to advance was welcomed by the Prussian line. For two hours they impotently fired ineffectual volley after ineffectual volley into the mist toward the town to no noticeable effect on French fire. The flames in the village and the Prussian advance forced the French light infantry and cavalry to withdraw and an eerie calm descended on the battlefield. It wouldn’t last.
The first reports of the Prussian advance flowed up the Dornberg Heights to a relieved Napoleon who spent the last several hours anxiously scanning the horizon for a glimpse of the Prussian main body. The Prussians wouldn’t advance without the main body, or so Napoleon’s believed. Not wanting to hand the Prussians the initiative, he ordered all of his corps to attack.
Nearly 50,000 Frenchmen crashed into 30,000 Prussians and Saxons in the fog. Ney with his vanguard and cavalry were briefly cut off. It was neither the first time nor the last time Ney would be surrounded; he formed a square and waited out the Prussian attack, fully confident that Napoleon would soon attack and save him. Ney’s faith in Napoleon was well founded.
The French and Prussian attacks devolved into a long firefight as neither side had the mass of men to break each other’s lines. Both Napoleon and Hohenlohe were waiting on more men to arrive on the battlefield. Napoleon’s arrived first. The bulk of Soult’s Corps and entirety of Ney’s infantry divisions arrived with Murat’s cavalry close behind. The Prussian reserves were still on the road from Weimar, miles away. The influx of men gave Napoleon another 50,000 troops to push into the attack. He ordered all commanders forward, and all reserves forward but the Imperial Guard.
The standard three deep line, three lines deep Prussian closed line formation could fire at most two rounds before the massed French columns, some battalions 20 men deep, were upon them. Moreover, the French line overextended the Prussian. Soult in the north on the French right quickly routed those to his front. He was struck in the flank by the remains of Holtzensdorff’s force that Lannes defeated earlier, but a timely charge by his light cavalry routed them again. Instead of pursuing the twice defeated Holtzendorff, Soult turned towards Vierzehnheilegen to envelope Hohenlohe’s attack.
In the center, Napoleon, ever the artilleryman, personally commanded the grand battery that blasted massive holes in the astonished Prussians. Augereau ground down the Saxon division at Innerstedt to his front. Lannes pushed forward and retook Vierzehnheilegen. The Prussian infantrymen, and their Saxon little brothers, retired with discipline when they could, and their famed reloading drill caused quite a bit of damage. Though outdated, Prussian tactics and harsh discipline could still show its best in the defense. But faced with overwhelming numbers and firepower, the Prussian line had no choice but to give way. Sensing weakness, Murat ordered his recently arrived heavy cavalry into the attack. The Prussian and Saxon lines broke.
Advancing west, the French juggernaut was stopped briefly at Gross Romstedt by the 15,000 strong Prussian reserve under General Ernst Ruechel which was slowly on its way from Weimar at the request of Hohenlohe. A Prussian’s Prussian, Ruechel chose to attack the massive force to his front. Lannes quickly brought up his cannon and shot massive holes in Ruechel’s lines as his and Soult’s infantry flanked flowed around them. When Ruechel attempted to withdraw, Lannes’ eager light cavalry turned it into a rout.
About this time, Napoleon finally realized that he hadn’t faced the Prussian main body under the Duke of Brunswick, but just Hohenlohe’s strong detachment.
The Duke of Brunswick was 30 kilometers away, in the midst of his own battle, where he outnumbered his French opponent nearly three to one.
In 1813, British Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane captured Tangier Island off the coast of Virginia, and from there staged raids all along the Virginia and North Carolina coasts. After a brief respite during the winter in the early months of 1814, Cochrane returned. That April, Emperor Napoleon I abdicated the French throne, and tens of thousands of British troops were released from Europe for service in North America against the fledgling United States, whose war the British considered a mere sideshow. The Duke of Wellington assigned Cochrane 5000 of his best troops under Maj Gen Robert Ross, all veterans of the Peninsular Campaign, for operations against Americans. Ross’ brigade’s first operation was to neutralize the American Chesapeake Flotilla in its anchorage. Commodore Joshua Barney, who only had about 400 sailors and marines, fired his ships and withdrew toward Washington DC. Ross then advanced to Upper Marlboro, for where he could advance on either Washington or Baltimore.
US Secretary of War John Armstrong vehemently assured President James Madison that the British would attack Baltimore as it was a far larger city and much more economically important. Washington was only a city of 8000 and Baltimore was major commercial and shipbuilding center. However, Washington was the American seat of government and Europeans could not fathom a country continuing a war with its capital in enemy hands. Ross marched on Washington.
The defense of Washington was entrusted to Gen William H Winder, a political general (nephew of the governor of Maryland) and one who was just recently returned to service after a prisoner exchange. Winder had few regular troops other than Barney’s men and his militia was slow to mobilize. He called for all militia to concentrate on Bladensburg, about 9 miles northeast of Washington (a 1 ½ hour drive today). The first to arrive under BG Tobias Stansbury dug in on Lowndes Hill which commanded or protected the crossroads from Washington, Baltimore, Georgetown and Annapolis, to include the bridge and fords over the Anacostia River. Stansbury was in a strong position but abandoned it to when Winder sent his order to concentrate on the other side of the river, otherwise, he felt, he’ll become isolated and destroyed. Stansbury withdrew to a brickyard where he was unable to cover the river which allowed the British to cross unimpeded. Stansbury’s initial disposition provided the rallying point for Winder’s converging command, and eventually its defensive position.
Winder’s regulars of the 1st Infantry Bn, and 1st Sqdn of Light Dragoons, Maryland militia, Washington militia under BG Walter Smith, Barney’ sailors and marines, and members of the government all massed at Bladensburg. President Madison, armed with two dueling pistols, Sec. Armstrong, and Secretary of State James Monroe joined Winder’s command, and promptly began tinkering with his dispositions. Five different “commanders” shuffled the American army around, none correcting the flaws in Stansbury’s initial set. Monroe’s changes were most egregious, as he moved some of Stansbury’s men too far back to be of use. Even worse some of the militia from Washington were unarmed as they’d been promised muskets by Winder. Some were given muskets but had to return their flints because a supply officer needed them recounted. In summary, the Washington militia was partly unarmed, most of the Maryland militia was exposed, the American artillery could not support them, and there was a large gap left between the Maryland and Washington contingents.
When Ross arrived across the river outside Bladensburg on 24 Aug 1814, Winder’s dispositional flaws were readily apparent for all British officers to see. The view of the American lines from the bridge was better from the bridge than Winder’s position. Ross’ advanced guard under Col William Thornton quickly seized the moment and crossed the river. Thornton drove straight at the gap between the Maryland and Washington militia. Winder with some Maryland troops counterattacked Thornton’s right but repulsed. As Thornton was about turn Smith’s left flank, he was assaulted by Barney’s marines and sailors whom checked his advance. For a moment it looked as if the British initial advance was stopped. However, Winder thought Thonton was about to turn Smith so he ordered Smith to withdraw to close the gap. At this moment Winder’s retreating militia routed as a volley of Congreve rockets sailed overhead which terrified the militiamen. Their disorganized retreat caused the rest of the army to break. Barney’s men didn’t get the order and fought on, but the retreat swept away Barney’s supply wagons, and they eventually ran out of ammunition.
The American army, almost 5000 strong, disintegrated. Its chaotic retreat was memorialized in an 1816 poem as the “Bladensburg Races”. The militia streamed back through Washington. Their presence was the first sign to First Lady Dolly Madison that the battle was lost. She was preparing a victory dinner for the President and 20 guests when informed of the imminent arrival of British troops. Dolly Madison attempted to save as many of the White House’s valuables as she could, and even had a copy of a life sized portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart saved. She had the White House gardener break the frame and cut it out, just before the British arrived. After her and the government’s hasty departure, some Washingtonian opportunists looted the White House and the government buildings which the British chased off. Ross and his officers dined on Dolly’s dinner as their men set fire to the government buildings. After the meal and many toasts using the Presidential crystal, they torched the White House, then known as the “Presidential Palace. The Capitol building, Treasury building, War and State building, and the Library of Congress were also destroyed. Ross spared civilian homes and the Patent office (after being convinced that the patents were privately owned), and the Marine Barracks, in recognition of Barney’s spirited defense at Bladensburg. Rear Adm Cockburn, Ross’ second, went to the office of the National Intelligenser newspaper and confiscated all the “c’s” off the printing press, so the paper couldn’t print stories about him.
That evening, a bad thunderstorm and tornado eventually forced the British to quit the capitol and return to their ships, and this was when British discipline broke down and widespread looting and pillaging occurred by the retreating British. The President stopped at a tavern that night and slept in the homestead of a Quaker family in Brookville MD that night.
So I was writing the Waterloo posts, and I found myself explaining the same concept over and over. And only because the narrative style, especially my amateurish campfire version of it, doesn’t accurately convey the story. Or for the purposes of this post, how close the story came to being significantly different, at all levels: tactically, operationally, and strategically. And I was saying the same thing every time one of the events happened that shouldn’t have, but did anyway. And it breaks up the story when I have to stop and explain every time that the world would be a different place when someone didn’t do something that they would normally do and moreover, didn’t really have a good reason why they didn’t do it. It’s one of the many reasons the Battle of Waterloo is so interesting because it simply has so many WTF moments.
If the Waterloo campaign was written as historical fiction, it would be unbelievable, and critics and readers would have savaged the author for massive, implausible, and unexplained plot holes.
So I’m going to break with tradition and lay my thesis statement out now and build toward it later: The Waterloo Campaign, including the battles of Quatre-Bra and Ligny, was one of those inexplicable flukes of history, and only through uncharacteristic human error and poor command climate did it actually happen, and then happen in a way that is directly responsible for how Western Civilization evolved (for better or worse).
Anyway, just after the battle, Wellington said it was,”the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life”. That was more accurate than he actually knew at the time. The Battle of Waterloo is a massive case study for the effects of bad staff work, poor command climate, general indecisiveness, or not following commander’s intent, and almost all on the French side.
For context, In May, 1815, four Allied armies were sent to defeat Napoleon. In June two were in Belgium, the British and Prussian, and two were in Bavaria, Russian and Austrian. Napoleon’s army was large enough to defeat any single Allied army in battle, easily. 50/50 with two. It was just mathematically impossible for him to lose against any single one. Therefore he couldn’t let them consolidate, so his plan was divide and conquer. Napoleon launched a surprise invasion of Belgium on the night of 14 June to keep Wellington’s Anglo-Dutch-Belgian Army and Blucher’s Prussians separate. He had complete surprise and on 16 June fought the Battle of Quatre Bra against the British and won, and the Battle of Ligny against the Prussians and won. Unfortunately for him, they weren’t followed up and failed to isolate either army. This directly resulted in the Battle of Waterloo, which Napoleon lost on 18 June 1815.
During these critical four days, there were quite a few events that are simply inexplicable, but are also absolute necessities for Waterloo to occur and have had the effect that it had. Furthermore, they occurred and there was NOTHING Wellington or Blucher did to influence them: they simply benefitted. Most importantly, if any ONE was different, the world we live in would be a different place and two of these four outcomes would have been reality:
- The Battle of Waterloo would not have happened or
- Wellington and Blucher would have lost the battle, and
- The Russians and Austrians would have had to defeat Napoleon (thereby gaining prestige which would have grave repercussions on the 19th Century). or
- The Russians and Austrians do not continue the fight, since Blucher held the alliance together. (Wellington leaves the continent, and Napoleon resurrects the French Empire)
So as I go through the narrative, these are the “anti-seminal” events of 15-18 June 1815 to look for. During that time, these are the critical and inexplicable French missed opportunities in chronological order:
-Ney fails to capture the crossroads at Quatre Bra on the night 15 June when it was held only by 4000 inexperienced Dutch troops. He had 55,000 veterans. (No clue why he didn’t and Ney was shot before he could explain. Capturing it would have inexorably separated the Allies. Prevailing theories are he was waiting for Wellington to attack or was intimidated by Wellington’s reputation. Both are uncharacteristic of Ney, the “Bravest of the Brave”. See 1, 3 or 4 above)
-Ney fails capture the crossroads at Quatre Bra on the morning of 16 June when Wellington had less than 15,000 troops there. (Same as previous)
-D’Erlon’s Corps fails to outflank either the British at Quatre Bra, or the Prussians at Ligny on the afternoon of 16 June (bad staff work caused them to march and countermarch, missing both battles 1, 3 or 4).
-The French fail to attack anyone of 17 June. (The French took the day off. No good explanation. 1, 4)
-Grouchy fails to gain and maintain contact with the defeated Prussians on 16, 17, or even early 18 June. (No good explanation 1, 2, 3, 4)
-Grouchy fails to march to the sound of the guns of the Battle at Waterloo on 18 June. (No good explanation 2, 3)
-The French fail to take Hougamount on the morning 18 June. (Napoleon for some unknown reason left the attack to his notoriously fickle little brother Jerome, then took a nap 2, 3)
-D’Erlon fails to consolidate and prepare for a counter attack after breaking the Allied center on the morning of 18 June. (Completely out of character for D’Erlon, no good explanation 2, 3)
I just want to reiterate that any one of these would have completely changed history. Not “could” – “would”. Now, I also want point out that after these, the French could still have won but Wellington or Blucher would have needed to make some mistakes. Also, there were many little episodes which would have greatly improved the chances of French victory, or placed the possibility of a French victory in Wellington’s or Blucher’s hands, but I’ll cover those in the narrative. But these were “no-brainers” that in hindsight, should have happened, had every reason to happen, were expected to happen, but for some reason lost to history, didn’t.
Truly the “nearest run thing”.
Finally, many people and even some great historians have put a silly amount of time and ink into saying that Waterloo didn’t matter, that even if Wellington lost the Austrians or Russians would have finished the job. That’s an argument for the comments. But I will point out some undeniable facts: the two big winners of the 19th Century, and the two decision makers of the first forty years of the 20th Century, were Great Britain and Germany (Prussia).
Their ascendancy began on 18 June 1815.
In May 1814, Napoleon had abdicated and was in captivity on the island of Elba. King Louis XVIII was on the French throne, and Field Marshal Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, the victor of the Peninsular War that did so much to sap Napoleon’s strength the previous six years, was appointed Great Britain’s ambassador to France.
On a trip from Paris to Brussels on 19 May 1814, the Duke and his staff stopped to water their horses, and maybe have a drink or two, at the small Belgian hamlet of La Haye. To the untrained eye, the fields to the west of La Haye were not dissimilar to any others in Belgium or northeastern France. But to Wellington, they formed a perfect killing ground, and at the expense of his trip, the Duke spent several hours surveying the beautiful defensive terrain.
As they approached from the south, those fields formed a shallow gently rolling valley that gradually rose northward to a small escarpment, not even high enough to be called a ridge. The road from Paris to Brussels passed right over it. To the right near a marshy creek, the ten stout stone buildings of La Haye and the walled farm of Papelotte marked the valley’s eastern edge. On the western edge of the valley about two miles away, was the imposing compound and chateau of Hougamont and another marshy creek. Any attacker from the south would not be able to go around either of these obstacles. They would have to go straight up the valley and over the escarpment. And just off the road directly in the center of the valley was the walled farm of La Haye Sainte. These obstructions stood like three great bastions of a fortress. If they were properly held, troops could poor fire into any body of men that tried to pass by. At least one would need to be taken, preferably two, before any attacker could confidently proceed north to attack a main defensive line just behind these three formidable obstacles.
That main defensive line would normally be just below the crest of the escarpment, but to Wellington’s delight the ground sloped down again to a quaint village whose chimney smoke could just barely be seen from La Haye. On this reverse slope, any defending troops would be shielded from the worst effects of an attacker’s artillery, and moreover, any movement of reserves would be unseen behind the escarpment. Those chimney’s belonged to the thirty or so buildings in the village of Mont-Saint-Jean. So if an army did seize two of the bastions, survive any counterattacks, crest the inter-visibility line, survive the grapeshot from the cannon, survive the point blank fusillade from the waiting troops, and after all that then finally break through the solid wall of bayonets, those nice stout houses of Mont-Saint-Jean would be there to cover the defender’s retreat. Truly magnificent ground.
Instead of continuing, Wellington and his staff decided to dine at the inn in the village and discuss the “wonderfully delightful” defensive terrain they were on. Even though they talked for several more hours, it was still all theoretical: Napoleon was on Elba, and King Louis XVIII would never invade Belgium. After the impromptu training exercise and dinner completed, Wellington realized he was late for his engagement in Brussels and they hastily galloped north.
Two miles up the road was a larger town where his chief of staff originally wanted to halt for a bit that afternoon. As the Duke passed through he noticed its sign; it read, “Waterloo”.
He would have to stop there again sometime.
When the officer in the General Staff has received a good education in times of peace, in times of war he will quickly become useful in many roles. But without a good education in times of peace, an officer in the General Staff will never achieve anything significant in war. For the latter requires judgement, which is developed through repeated study of military incidents, and a great amount of past facts that we have to keep in mind. These are necessary if we wish, in all cases that occur, thanks to resemblance in circumstances, to be able to judge to some degree the success of an enterprise and avoid the mistakes experience could discover––if we wish to consult all the special circumstances and among the numerous possibilities to choose the most beneficial ones. Nothing in this case is more dangerous than one’s own experience without the understanding with which military history provides us. The few instances of this personal experience now become the yardstick, and all similar occurrences are judged according to them, even if the circumstances and the results are marked by a greater diversity.
I have often seen how deficient, in terms of providing advice, those perform who apply only the facts they have personally experienced. How uncertain and fearful they are in undertaking something the circumstances require, but they have never encountered in the span of their life. These people do not know what one should dare in war. Through reminiscences of a hundred possible but unlikely disasters, they make the general they support anxious. They would, perhaps, never dare an audacious thought because no similar case from history, crowned with success, gives them the necessary confidence. — GERHARD VON SCHARNHORST
La Grande Armée was no more. The victors of a hundred battles lay dead in the snows of Russia and fields of Germany. It seemed as if Napoleon had lost his tactical brilliance after the catastrophic meat grinding battlefield losses in 1812 and 1813 against the nations of the Sixth Coalition. By early 1814, Napoleon was forced to fall back on Paris with a 70,000 man shell of his Grande Armée. Four Allied armies numbering more than 600,000 men followed closely behind.
Napoleon was defeated or so the world thought.
Unexpectedly, Napoleon turned to the defense of France with a verve not seen since his campaigns in 1805 and 1806, almost a decade earlier. First, his negotiations with Austria caused significant hesitation in Austria’s Prince Schwarzenburg’s Army of Bohemia (Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise, was an Archduchess of Austria and Schwarzenburg’s niece). The second Allied Army, the primarily Swedish and German Northern Army under Napoleon’s former subordinate and now Swedish Crown Prince Jean Bernadotte experienced supply difficulties in the winter weather while slowly moving through the Netherlands. The third Allied Army, the Duke of Wellington’s Peninsular Army, was still crossing the Pyrenees far to the south. With the Austrians, Swedes and British too far away to help, Napoleon turned on Field Marshal Prince von Blücher’s Prussian Army of Silesia on 29 January 1814. Napoleon fixed Blucher in place at the Battles of Brienne and the desperate defense of La Rothiere. He used the respite to gather fresh conscripts and collect garrisons to reinforce his army.
In the freezing weather, with green troops and few supplies, Napoleon struck back.
Using his advantage of interior lines of communication to great effect, Napoleon turned on Blucher on 10 February 1814. Over the next six days Napoleon, with an army of just 30,000, won four major victories over Blucher, at the Battles of Champaubert, Montmirail, Château-Thierry, and Vauchamps. He then crushed Blucher’s Russian and Prussian reinforcements on 17 February at the Battle of Mormans. Schwarzenburg paid for his indecisiveness on the 18th when Napoleon defeated him at the Battle of Montereau. In a period of just 20 days, Napoleon and his marshals with a combined force of just 45,000 won ten separate major battles against 400,000 Allied troops. The Austrians and Prussians streamed back east.
The Six Days’ Campaign, and the battles in the days before and after, was a masterpiece of tactical maneuver warfare, a tribute to the courage of the French character, and a testament to the inspired leadership that coaxed the new French conscripts to victory over an overwhelming number of Allied veterans. Unfortunately for Napoleon, the problem with relying on interior lines is that it rarely, if ever, leads to the complete destruction of one’s enemy. Napoleon couldn’t finish the job and still cover Paris.
Napoleon’s inability to pursue allowed the Allies to recover by the end of month. When Blucher and Schwarzenberg returned in March, Napoleon was not be able to repeat the brilliance of the Six Days’ Campaign the month before, despite severing the Allies’ supply lines to the east at the beginning of the month. Blucher and Schwarzenburg just ignored the maneuver and drove on the French capital. On 30 March, the Allies triumphantly entered Paris. Napoleon abdicated the French throne five days later after his marshals mutinied, thus ending the War of the Sixth Coalition. He was sent into exile on the Mediterranean island of Elba, where he would spend the rest of his days.
Or so the world thought…