Tagged: NapoleonicWars

Napoleon Escapes Elba

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.

The Battle of Jena

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.

The Battle of Bladensburg

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.

Buk’s Battle of Waterloo Theory

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. I was saying the same thing, over and over again, every time one of the events happened that shouldn’t have, but did anyway. 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.

Bernard Cornwell, the author of the the Sharp’s series of Napoleonic historical fiction, said 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 posts: 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).

The Waterloo Campaign was Napoleon’s to lose. The Imperial French culture defeated Napoleon. All Wellington had to do was maintain contact with the Prussians and not interfere with the French making mistakes.

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:

  1. The Battle of Waterloo would not have happened, or
  2. Wellington and Blucher would have lost the battle,

and

3. The Russians and Austrians would have had to defeat Napoleon (thereby gaining prestige which would have grave repercussions on the 19th Century). or
4. 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 over the next few days, 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.

An Impromptu Staff Ride

Map courtesy of author William R. Shepherd

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.

Introducing #Scharnhorst: The Vision of an Enlightened Soldier “On Experience and Theory”

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

https://thestrategybridge.org/the-bridge/2019/4/1/introducing-scharnhorst-the-vision-of-an-enlightened-soldier-on-experience-and-theory

The Six Days’ Campaign

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…

The Spring of Nations: The Revolutions of 1848

The Congress of Vienna in 1815 after the defeat of Napoleon undid any social and political reforms in Europe brought about by the American, Polish and French Revolutions, and even Napoleon’s reforms such as the Napoleonic Code. The Council of Vienna cemented political and social control in the absolutist regimes of Europe in the name of stability and “Balance of Power”. It was as if the revolutions of the Enlightenment and the Napoleonic Eras had never happened.

But no matter how hard someone tries, you can’t kill an idea with centralized power. The autocracies of the Hapsburgs in Austria, the Hohenzollerns of Prussia, the Bourbons of France, and the Romanovs of Russia held iron grips on their people. But the shining examples of America which was founded on Enlightenment principles and Britain whose constitutional monarchy enacted sweeping political and social reforms caused by its early embrace of the Industrial Revolution could not be kept from increasingly literate populations of the Ancien Regimes. The world shrank with rapidly expanding communications technologies such as steam power and the telegraph. Thirty years after the Congress of Vienna, Liberalism and Nationalism, with a heavy dash of Romanticism, swept Europe.

Romanticism was a direct reaction to the Industrial Revolution, as romantics pined for long lost good old days, the glories of the past, its upswelling of emotion, and the beauty of nature’s perfect moment. Romanticism’s devotion to the emotions of the individual dovetailed nicely with the Liberalism of the Enlightenment, part of those supposedly long lost good old days. Liberalism in the 19th Century has nothing to do with contemporary or postmodern Liberalism. “Big L” Liberalism of today focuses on collectivism and Greater Good at any cost, whereas Liberalism of the 19th Century, known as “Classical Liberalism” today, concerns the expansion of individual rights and protections from the tyranny of the majority. Similarly, the concept of Nationalism evolved, though not to such an extreme as the term Liberalism. Unlike today, Enlightenment Nationalism has little to do with shared race and ethnicity, and everything to do with shared culture, though on occasion they were one and the same. Like Bushido in Japan, the word “Nationalism” in the 20th century was perverted by National Socialist Germany and Fascist Italy, and today is used to invoke Godwin’s Law without actually saying “Hitler”. But in the early and mid-19th century (and to most academics today), Nationalism was, and is, a concept linked to shared culture, history, and geography. For example in 19th cent France, Normans, Bretons, Gascons, and Burgundians were ethnically different, but culturally “French”, same as “British” with the Welsh, English and Scots of the British Isles. America was founded on that very principle: taking the best of each ethnicity and subsuming it in American culture, we just know it today as “the Melting Pot”. As nationalist feelings swept Europe in the 1830s and 1840s, it was no surprise that the first revolutions of 1848 began in Italy, then under the domination of the Austrian Hapsburgs.

But no Roman shopkeeper, Venetian sailor, Neapolitan factory worker or Sicilian farmer just woke up and said, “I am going to revolt against my Hapsburg or Bourbon overseers because of Liberalism, Nationalism, and Romanticism”. Catalysts were needed, and 1848 saw the culmination of several. In 1845, a series of catastrophic famines began across Europe, the Great Irish Potato Famine being the most famous. Also, across Europe the effects of the Industrial Revolution exacerbated the political and social issues of absolutism and autocracy. The blights and mechanization in the fields pushed the peasants to the cities to find work in the factories which replaced the guilded artisans. Populations grew, urbanization increased (Berlin’s population tripled in 30 years) and unemployment skyrocketed as societal systems attempted, and failed, to adapt to the pressures. The poor were hungry, the middle class unemployed, and the upper classes disenfranchised with the ruling elite. The nobles of the conquered territories were first to look at their situations and determine that they could do a better job than their foreign overlords, especially those that had states prior to Congress of Vienna in 1815.

The first revolution based on these ideals and conditions actually occurred in Prussian occupied Greater Poland in 1846 where the Polish population opposed the Germanification of their lands. The revolt was swiftly crushed and the trial for the ringleaders ended in December of 1847 with eight sentenced to death and over a hundred to prison. The news spread across Europe and inflamed the passions of many who saw themselves in the same predicament as the stateless Poles. The winter was cold in most of Europe, which made revolutionizing not particularly attractive, but not in the temperate Mediterranean clime of Sicily. The first actual Revolution in 1848 occurred in Palermo, then in the Bourbon controlled Kingdom of Two Sicilies.

With winter foodstocks nearly depleted and the harvest a long ways off, on 12 January 1848 the people of Palermo overthrew the Bourbons, revived the Constitution of 1812 and established the Republic of Sicily, conquering the entire island except the town of Messina. Revolution quickly spread throughout Italy, most notably to Milan, Rome and Venice, and the news electrified the continent. And as the weather warmed, the Italian revolutions against the Hapsburgs and Bourbons spread to the center of the 19th century European universe – Paris.

France’s King Louis Phillipe outlawed the right to peacefully assemble, so as usual the people of Paris just figured out another way. In this case, the Parisians held “banquets” when they wanted to discuss politics. These banquets were just hours’ long assemblies where food was served, many involving hundreds of people. Speeches were given during the meal, and if you were important, between courses. On 22 February 1848, the banquets were outlawed. The barricades went up the next day. French soldiers accidentally, then intentionally, fired on protesters and revolution quickly spread throughout France. King Louis Phillipe abdicated on the 24th and France’s reformers created the Second French Republic.

Austria’s chancellor, Prince Klemens von Metternich, once said, “When France sneezes, all of Europe gets a cold.” Metternich was Europe’s arch diplomat, the architect of the Council of Vienna and the personification of the neo-Ancien Regimes of the early 19th century. And so it was with the Revolutions of 1848, soon to be known as the “Spring of Nations”. News of France and Italy’s revolutions spread like wildfire along Europe’s roads, rails, and telegraph lines. By March, Belgium, the Netherlands, the German states, Prussia, Austria, Hungary, Denmark, Serbia, Sweden, Poland, Switzerland, Moldavia, Wallachia, and Ireland were all in the midst of their own revolutions. Only Britain, whose previous reforms hamstrung support for revolution, and Russia which had no middle class to speak of, were spared.

However, by the end of the year, every revolution had failed.

The Springtime of Nations was not meant to be in 1848. One of the many rights people in 1848 were fighting for was the right to bear arms and form citizen militias to oppose the national armies of the ruling elite. The ruling authorities of each country had a monopoly on force and used their armies and police to bloodily put down each revolt. Furthermore, the regimes controlled the press, and the ability to assemble. Thus the revolts were neither organized nor coordinated, even among themselves. The revolutionaries were fighting for different things and they soon descended into class warfare. No faction could unite with another and the regimes took advantage. They soon divided the lower classes from the middle classes, the workers from the peasants, and isolated and suppressed each in turn. Millions fled the violence and famine, particularly to the Americas. By early next year, the Spring of Nations was over.

But like I mentioned before, it’s easy to kill a person, it is much harder to kill an idea. The people of Europe got a taste of freedom and they could no longer be ignored. The rulers of Europe noted that they couldn’t effectively govern without some consent of the people. The public and private spheres were inextricably linked. Many reforms were put into place in 1848 that would lead to great changes in the coming years. Austria and Prussia banned feudalism. Serfdom and slavery were banned across Europe, leaving Russia and the United States as the only countries with official systems of slavery. In many cases, absolute monarchy was replaced with constitutional monarchy. The petty states of central and southern Europe would gain a new national consciousness of shared sacrifice, and would lack only a unifying leader. Just a decade or so later Italy would get its leader in Giuseppe Garibaldi, and in Germany Otto von Bismarck.

In France, the Second French Republic elected Louis Napoleon the first President of France in December of 1848. Louis Napoleon was the nephew of Emperor Napoleon I, and dreamt of following in his namesake’s grandiose footsteps. In 1851, Louis Napoleon castigated the new constitution and proclaimed himself Emperor Napoleon III. His ascension to the throne of the Second French Empire would lead directly to the Crimean War, the reunification of Italy, the reunification of Germany, and the First World War.

“A cold” indeed.

The Battle of Krasny and The Bravest of the Brave

After the capture, and subsequent destruction, of Moscow by Russian patriots, Napoleon realized that Czar Alexander I was not going to sue for peace. Reluctantly, Napoleon began his retreat on 8 October 1912 before his army starved to death during the Russian Winter. He planned on retreating just to his depots at Smolensk but that position proved to be untenable and he had to continue on to Poland. His Grande Armee disintegrated further every step of the way.

On 15 November at the Battle of Krasny in Western Russia, Field Marshal Mikhail Kutuzov surprised Napoleon’s strung out columns on the road to Smolensk. Of the French Corps engaged over the next 3 days, Poniatowski’s Advanced Guard and Junot’s Corps managed to escape the trap, Eugene’s Corps was destroyed, Davout’s Corps was wrecked nearly beyond repair, tens of thousands of French stragglers were captured or butchered by Cossacks, and the baggage train and what was left of the artillery were overrun. The Grande Armee was only saved from complete destruction by an audacious feint by the Imperial Guard led by Napoleon himself. The maneuver threw the Russian command into panic and indecision, and Kutuzov held back his final attack which would have most assuredly destroyed the French. The bold maneuver allowed what was left of the Grande Armee to escape west.

Unfortunately, the maneuver did nothing for Napoleon’s Rear Guard, Marshall Ney’s III Corps, which was then completely cut off from the rest of the army. On 18 Nov 1812, the Russians surrounded Ney and offered terms for surrender to which Ney promptly declined. Thinking Napoleon was still just ahead (and not fleeing west as he was), Ney attacked with his 8000 troops and 7000 stragglers, whom he hastily organized into units. The valiant but ultimately futile charges, many led by Ney himself, broke thru line after line of Russians but the rest of the Grande Armee was nowhere to be found.

Ney was forced to retreat into the forests with whatever he had left and march westward along woodsmen’s’ trails, fighting off Cossack attacks and Russian troops at every clearing and field. Throughout the ordeal, Ney often took up a musket and fought alongside his men on the line, and was later universally credited by them as the only reason they didn’t break. Three days and nights later, Ney with just a remnant of 800 troops, rejoined Napoleon in an emotional reunion, during which the Emperor proclaimed him to be “The Bravest of the Brave.”

The Battle of Borodino and the Fires of Moscow

When the French Army crossed the Nieman River and invaded Russia in June 1812, Emperor Napoleon I had 300,000 troops under his direct command. 3 months and 600 miles later, he had half that due to casualties, desertion, starvation, Cossack raids, and detachments to guard his overextended supply lines. General Kutuzov, the Russian commander opposite Napoleon used scorched earth tactics as he retreated and wouldn’t allow his army to be caught and destroyed by Napoleon’s superior numbers and skill. But after judging Napoleon’s strength in late summer 1812, Kutuzov decided it was time to make a stand with his 120,000 men. On 9 September, the Russians would make build a defensive position just outside the small village of Borodino: a bare 70 miles from Moscow. Napoleon was ecstatic that he could finally destroy the Russian Army. He launched his combined French, Polish, Italian and German Army in a series of bloody frontal assaults against the Russian redoubts. It was the largest battle of the Napoleonic era and by the end of the day, the bloodiest. The French had 35,000 casualties and the Russians had 45,000 men killed, wounded and missing but the Kutuzov managed to escape with the remains of his army when Napoleon wouldn’t commit his Imperial Guard to finish the job. Napoleon won the battle, but his hesitance would eventually cost him his empire.

On 14 September 1812, Emperor Napoleon I and his La Grande Armee triumphantly marched into Moscow… only to find it abandoned and deserted. The vast majority of the population took all of the food in the city and evacuated ahead of the French. Napoleon fully expected Tsar Alexander to surrender once Moscow was occupied but now he couldn’t find anyone to entreaty with. Two days later, on the night of 16 Sep, Russian patriots snuck in and set the city ablaze. For the next several days the French attempted to put out the fires but eventually ¾ of Moscow would be a smoldering ruin. Napoleon was now not only short of food for his army but also short of shelter for the coming Russian winter. He would wait around for the Tsar’s surrender for a month before he accepted that his troops must retreat or starve and freeze to death. On 19 October 1812, Napoleon and his Grande Armee began the long retreat back to Poland and East Prussia. Over the next several months, the Russian winter, Cossack raids, peasant guerrillas, and the scorched earth would contribute to Napoleon’s defeat in the campaign, but it was Kutuzov’s Army that escaped Borodino that would eventually throw Napoleon out of Russia and drive him back to Paris. Of the 690,000 troops Napoleon started the invasion of Russia with, only 63,000 would re-cross the Nieman River.