Napoleon Endgame: France 1814

published on June 29, 2020

In October 1813, Napoleon had suffered his
heaviest ever defeat – at Leipzig… the Battle

of the Nations

Surviving French forces, exhausted, sick,
and demoralized, retreated to the River Rhine,

and prepared to defend France from invasion

But in November, the armies of the Sixth Coalition
paused their advance, and Austrian foreign

minister Metternich offered peace terms:

‘The Frankfurt Proposals’ would allow
Napoleon to keep his throne, if France returned

to her so-called ‘natural frontiers’

It was the best offer Napoleon was likely
to get, now that his back was to the wall,

and all Europe’s great powers were united
against him

Even so, he did not accept the terms, he merely
agreed to reopen negotiations To the Allies,

and many in France itself, it proved that
Napoleon would not listen to reason

The war went on, and by January 1814, Napoleon’s
situation looked even worse

Many of his besieged garrisons in the east
were starved into surrender

Marshal Davout with 34,000 men in Hamburg
was now besieged

Denmark, one of France’s last allies, was
invaded by Bernadotte’s Swedish army, and

made to join the Coalition

French troops evacuated the Netherlands, which
reasserted its independence after nearly 20

years of French control

In Italy, Eugène’s army faced a new enemy:
Joachim Murat, King of Naples – now marching

north with 30,000 men, to honour his new alliance
with the Sixth Coalition

In Paris, Napoleon responded to the crisis
with a series of extreme measures: property

taxes doubled, state salaries and pensions
suspended, 300,000 new conscripts called up…

from a country already exhausted by 20 years
of war

He ordered the release of Pope Pius (under
French house arrest for the last five years),

to try to shore up his support in Italy

He even agreed to release Fernando, the Bourbon
king of Spain, to take up his throne, in exchange

for peace between France and Spain – a condition
that Fernando was in no position to honour

But these concessions were too little, far
too late

In January, two Coalition armies crossed the
Rhine into France:

Blücher’s Army of Silesia… and Schwarzenberg’s
Army of Bohemia

Outnumbered French forces in their path could
only fall back

On 25th January, Napoleon said farewell to
his wife and son at the Tuileries Palace,

before leaving for the front He would never
see either of them again

With just 70,000 men, he faced odds of four-to-one
Most of his troops were raw conscripts, some

without uniforms, many just learning how to
hold a musket

But for the first time in years, Napoleon’s
army was so small that he’d be able to exercise

direct command over all its movements The
result would be one of the most audacious

and brilliant campaigns in history

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His cavalry replaced by armoured vehicles;
cannon by attack helicopters; the Old Guard

in heavy tanks

The Emperor… with air support

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The battle for France would be fought east
of Paris, mostly across Champagne: a flat

region divided by the rivers Marne… and
Seine… and their tributaries In late January

fields were dusted with snow, and roads quickly
turned to mud

Napoleon learned that the Coalition armies
were widely scattered, with part of Blücher’s

army near Napoleon’s old college at Brienne

The Emperor advanced rapidly, hoping to trap
and destroy part of Blücher’s army

But after a hard day’s fighting that cost
both sides 3,000 casualties, Blücher was

able to retreat towards Schwarzenberg’s
army

That evening, Napoleon was nearly skewered
by a charging Cossack – saved only by General

Gourgaud’s good shooting

As Napoleon tried to work out the enemy’s
movements, Blücher, heavily reinforced by

Schwarzenberg, made a surprise attack at La
Rothière

Allied troops advanced through swirling snow
to assault the village, defiantly held by

young French conscripts

One was so inexperienced that Marshal Marmont
had to personally show him how to load his

musket during the battle

By late afternoon, Wrede’s Bavarian corps
was falling on Napoleon’s flank Heavily

outnumbered, Napoeon had no option but to
retreat, having lost 5,000 casualties, and

73 guns, abandoned in the thick mud

The Allies’ frontal attacks meant their
losses were greater But by combining their

armies, they’d defeated Napoleon on French
soil for the first time

Believing Napoleon would now retreat towards
Paris, the Allies decided to advance along

two routes, to ease pressure on the roads:

Blücher would take a northern route along
the Marne; Schwarzenberg would follow the

Seine

But dividing their armies again… would play
right into Napoleon’s hands

After two days to reorganise, Napoleon continued
his retreat to Nogent, where he learned that

the Allies had split their armies

Not only that, they were advancing at different
speeds: the aggressive Blücher racing ahead,

while the more cautious Schwarzenberg lagged
behind

Leaving Oudinot and Victor to guard the Seine
bridges and delay Schwarzenberg, Napoleon

raced north through mud and rain with 30,000
men

The Army of Silesia was strung out on the
march, oblivious to the danger it was in

First Napoleon fell on General Olsufiev’s
Russian Ninth Corps at Champaubert, destroying

it, taking its commander and 2,000 men prisoner

The next morning he marched on General Osten-Sacken’s
force near Montmirail

This was a much larger force, with two infantry
and one cavalry corps, and was expecting support

from Yorck’s Prussian First Corps

But the Prussians were late… and Sacken’s
troops could not withstand the French onslaught

At this desperate hour, the Emperor’s elite
Old Guard were no longer held back, but were

often thrown into the thick of the fighting

By the end of the day Napoleon had inflicted
another 3,500 casualties – twice his own

losses – and the Allies were in rapid retreat

Napoleon had ordered Marshal Macdonald to
cut off the enemy’s escape, by seizing the

Marne bridge at Château-Thierry

But Yorck’s Prussians got there first The
next day Napoleon could only batter their

rearguard, as the enemy fled across the Marne,
destroying the bridge behind them

Sending Marshal Mortier to rebuild the bridge
and continue the pursuit, Napoleon doubled-back

to re-join Marmont, who had been left to keep
watch on Blücher

Napoleon attacked at Vauchamps, using General
Grouchy’s cavalry to outflank Blücher’s

army, which was soon in headlong retreat

A merciless French pursuit inflicted 6,000
Prussian and Russian casualties Napoleon

lost just 600 men

Napoleon had taken on an enemy army almost
twice his size, and beaten it four times in

just six days Blücher had lost an estimated
15,000 casualties in battle, and another 15,000

in smaller engagements, as stragglers, or
deserters

For now, the Army of Silesia had been scattered,
and neutralised

But in the south, Marshals Victor and Oudinot
had not been able to prevent Schwarzenberg’s

Army of Bohemia from crossing the Seine in
three places Austrian troops were now just

40 miles from Paris

Leaving Mortier and Marmont to keep watch
on Blücher, Napoleon raced south

Schwarzenberg, alarmed by news of Blücher’s
defeat, and of Napoleon’s approach, immediately

ordered a retreat

It was too late for Wittgenstein’s advance
guard, routed at Mormant, with 2,000 casualties

Napoleon sent Victor’s Second Corps to seize
the bridge at Montereau, but was so infuriated

by its slow progress that he sacked Victor,
and gave his corps to General Gérard

The next day, at the Battle of Montereau,
the French drove the Allied Württemberg corps

back across the river with 30% losses

According to some accounts, the Emperor sighted
the French cannon himself, as he had at Lodi,

18 years before

Napoleon had the Allies on the run But how
long could it last?

Even as fighting continued, negotiations between
France and the Coalition reopened at Châtillon-sur-Seine

on 5th February

The Allied terms were now more severe: a return
to France’s frontiers of 1791, which meant

the additional loss of Belgium – a humiliation
that Napoleon refused to accept

Instead he tried to revive the Frankfurt Proposals
– hoping to play for time, and to split

the Coalition, whose war aims varied from
Britain’s hard line… to Austria’s more

ambiguous position

But this hope was thwarted by British foreign
secretary Lord Castlereagh On 1st March,

he persuaded the Allies to sign the Treaty
of Chaumont

In it, Russia, Prussia, Austria and Great
Britain agreed to keep 150,000 troops in the

field, and not to negotiate separately with
France, while Britain added the sweetener

of a 5 million pound subsidy to be shared
among the Allies

The treaty’s secret articles specified common
war aims,

including the future independence of the German
states, Switzerland, and Italy, while Spain

was to be returned to the Bourbons, and Holland
to the House of Orange

The four powers even agreed that once they’d
defeated Napoleon, they’d form a 20-year

defensive alliance to maintain peace in Europe
– a sign of their newfound commitment to

each other

A split in the Coalition had been Napoleon’s
last, best hope for a favourable peace That

was gone And news from across the country
was bleak

French cities were surrendering to the Allies
without a fight: Nancy, Dijon and Mâcon had

all fallen

In the south, Wellington defeated Marshal
Soult at Orthez, forcing him to fall back

on Toulouse

Two weeks later, as British troops approached
the city of Bordeaux, it declared loyalty

to France’s Bourbon kings The mayor himself
rode out to greet the British bearing a white

cockade – the sign of Bourbon allegiance

Napoleon’s hope for ‘a nation in arms’
to resist the Allies had not materialised

Allied troops, particularly Cossacks, often
robbed French civilians, and committed some

atrocities French peasants took revenge when
they could – but there was no guerrilla

war to mirror what French troops had encountered
in Spain or Russia

The chief desire among ordinary French people
was for peace, at almost any price

Any talk of Napoleon’s defeat in late February
was premature

The French Emperor was driving Schwarzenberg’s
Army of Bohemia before him, even though it

was twice his size

But Schwarzenberg scrambled to safety behind
the River Aube

Napoleon knew he had to land another decisive
blow soon, so turned his attention back to

Blücher

After an aborted attempt to join forces with
Schwarzenberg, Blücher had decided to resume

his advance on Paris – gathering reinforcements
en route – and with only Marmont and Mortier’s

weak corps to oppose him

But after just a day’s fighting, the garrison
commander at Soissons tamely surrendered,

allowing Blücher to escape

Napoleon continued his pursuit across the
Aisne, still hoping to cut off the Army of

Silesia

But at Craonne, he encountered Russian troops
in a strong defensive position

The Russians fought stubbornly

The French finally forced the enemy to withdraw,
but only at the cost of 6,000 casualties,

including many irreplaceable veterans from
Napoleon’s Guard

Napoleon pushed on to Laon

But by now Blücher had concentrated his forces,
98,000 troops in all, and outnumbered Napoleon

two-to-one

French attacks were repulsed, while Marmont’s
corps was caught off-guard by a late Allied

counter-attack, and routed

Napoleon was lucky to avoid a much heavier
defeat: Blücher, usually aggressive to the

point of recklessness, was unwell, and had
been told Napoleon’s army was twice as big

as it was, leading him to act with unusual
caution

Laon was a heavy blow to Napoleon – 6,500
casualties he could not afford

Undaunted, he fell back to Soissons, and after
a brief moment to reorganise… he marched

on the city of Reims, which had just fallen
to Saint-Priest’s Russian corps

In a whirlwind assault, Napoleon retook the
city Saint-Priest himself was mortally wounded,

his corps routed

Meanwhile in the south, Schwarzenberg had
resumed his offensive as soon as he found

out Napoleon had gone north

In heavy fighting, he’d driven Oudinot and
Macdonald back from the River Aube

Five days later, the Allies had recaptured
Troyes… as Macdonald retreated behind the

River Seine

Now, after four days to rest and reorganise
his battered army, Napoleon was coming south

once more

Schwarzenberg, emboldened by news of Napoleon’s
defeat at Laon, decided that this time he

would stand and fight

Napoleon advanced on Arcis-sur-Aube, ignoring
reports that the enemy was not retreating,

as he believed, but gathering for battle

As heavy fighting broke out, Napoleon still
believed he faced only the enemy rearguard

It was a nasty surprise to discover that he
faced the entire might of the Army of Bohemia:

28,000 men against 80,000

In desperate fighting, Napoleon personally
rallied fleeing troops, and exposed himself

to enemy fire, having his horse killed under
him by an exploding shell

But the odds were too great At the end of
the second day, Napoleon was forced to order

the retreat

Napoleon believed his army was now too weak
to take on the Allies directly So he decided

to change strategy

He would march into the rear of the Allied
armies, join up with some of his isolated

garrisons, and cut the enemy’s lines of
communication, forcing them to abandon their

advance on Paris

But the Allies, until now always one step
behind Napoleon, had just received crucial

information

Leaving Marshal Macdonald in command in the
south, Napoleon set off to intercept Blücher,

covering 60 miles in 3 days along terrible
roads, choked with mud

At Napoleon’s approach, Blücher retreated
across the Marne, burning the bridges behind

him

24 hours later they’d been rebuilt by French
engineers, and Napoleon was poised to crush

Blücher against the Aisne River… because
the major crossing point, at Soissons, was

held by a Franco-Polish garrison

Talleyrand The most brilliant French diplomat
of the age, and the most slippery He’d

served France’s monarchy, the Revolution,
then Napoleon… until in 1807 he fell out

irrevocably with the Emperor over foreign
policy

He now believed that Napoleon was dragging
France into ruin, and worked behind the scenes

to ensure his downfall

From Paris, he wrote to the Russian Emperor
Alexander at Allied headquarters, informing

him that in the capital, support for Napoleon
was crumbling, and the city’s defences had

been completely neglected

He urged the Allies to march immediately on
Paris, without allowing Napoleon to distract

them

Talleyrand’s information was confirmed when
the Allies intercepted a report from Napoleon’s

chief of police, General Savary, meant for
the Emperor:

“The treasury, arsenals, and powder stores
are empty We are completely at the end of

our resources The population is discouraged
and discontented, wishing peace at any price”

As Napoleon advanced on Saint-Dizier, the
Allies sent General Witzingerode and 10,000

cavalry to harass his army, and to screen
their own movements… then began their march

on Paris

At Fère-Champenoise, they collided with Marmont
and Mortier’s corps, advancing to join Napoleon

An entire National Guard division, 5,000 men,
was virtually wiped out, as the marshals suffered

a crushing defeat

Napoleon feared that the fall of Paris would
be a fatal blow to his regime His political

authority, and ability to wage war, might
not recover

So when he received news of the Allies’
movements, he tore up his plans, and ordered

a forced march back to Paris, intending to
lead its defence in person

Napoleon’s wife and son were evacuated from
the capital, along with most of his ministers

His brother Joseph, the ex-King of Spain,
was in charge of the city’s defences, but

had done little

Paris was awash with rumours of treachery
and defeat

Marmont and Mortier were able to reach Paris
before the Allies, adding their troops to

the garrison

It now totalled 37,000 men, including some
hardened veterans of the Guard – but many

more young conscripts, while a third were
part-time soldiers of the National Guard

The Allies had 120,000 seasoned troops outside
the city And given the urgency of taking

Paris before Napoleon could intervene, their
elite guards and grenadier divisions would

lead the way

On 30th March they began their assault from
the north

Heavy fighting raged throughout the day The
city’s defenders fought bravely, inflicting

several thousand casualties on the advancing
enemy

But defeat was inevitable

That night, to save Paris from destruction,
Marshal Marmont agreed to surrender the city,

on condition the garrison was permitted to
leave with its weapons

At the Hôtel des Invalides, the 71-year old
Marshal Sérurier oversaw the burning of 1,400

flags and standards captured from France’s
enemies, as well as Frederick the Great’s

sword and sash, so they would not fall into
Allied hands

Napoleon was just 15 miles from Paris when
he was informed of the city’s surrender

He sat, with his head in his hands, for 15
minutes

On 31st March 1814, France’s enemies marched
into Paris for the first time since the Hundred

Years’ War

Parisian crowds cheered the three Allied monarchs,
bringers of peace

Everyone in Paris was suddenly a royalist,
once more

Above all they cheered for Emperor Alexander
of Russia, now hailed as Europe’s saviour

Don cossacks bivouacked on the Champs-Élysées

Allied troops generally behaved well

35 miles away, Napoleon was at Fontainebleau
with 36,000 men, all of them hungry and exhausted

after their 100-mile forced march

Nevertheless, Napoleon began planning an immediate
advance on Paris

But for the first time, he faced unanimous
opposition from his ministers, and marshals,

including Ney, Macdonald, Oudinot and Berthier

They reminded him of his oath to act for the
good of France

He accused them of disloyalty, acting only
to save themselves

They told him the war was lost, and he must
abdicate – in favour of his son, if possible

On 4th April Marshal Marmont surrendered his
entire corps to the Coalition, which was marched

over to the enemy lines, against the wishes
of many of its officers and men

This was a devastating blow to Napoleon, and
encouraged the Allies to reject his offer

of a conditional abdication in favour of his
son

Two days later, he abdicated without conditions

“The Allied Powers having proclaimed that
the Emperor Napoleon is the only obstacle

to the re-establishment of peace in Europe,
the Emperor Napoleon, faithful to his oath,

declares that he renounces, for himself and
his heirs, the thrones of France and Italy

and that there is no personal sacrifice, including
his life, that he is not ready to make in

the interests of France”

Napoleon’s abdication was formalised by
the Treaty of Fontainebleau, by which he was

allowed to keep the title of Emperor, become
sovereign of the small island of Elba, and

retain a bodyguard of 400 men

News came too late to prevent Wellington’s
attack on Toulouse, leading to a costly and

pointless battle, with more than 7,000 casualties

The night after his abdication, Napoleon tried
to commit suicide, using the poison that had

been made for him in Russia, in case of capture

But it had lost its potency, and he survived

Two weeks later, Napoleon bade farewell to
his Old Guard at Fontainebleau Palace, and

began his journey into exile

The Napoleonic Wars, which had raged on land
and sea for eleven years, seemed finally at

an end

The death toll is unknown, but historians
estimate that 2 to 3 million lives were lost

across Europe

Most soldiers died not in battle, but from
disease

Many thousands were left maimed and disfigured

For most of this period, Napoleon was master
of Europe: imposing treaties on defeated enemies,

redrawing frontiers, overthrowing old regimes
and making new kings

He was the last figure in history to combine
total political power with frontline, military

genius – in the mould of Alexander, and Caesar

But it seemed Napoleon’s reign was to end
in abject military defeat

However – exile on Elba did not prove to Napoleon’s
taste In less than 10 months, he would return

to France to fight one last, great campaign,
to reclaim his throne

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