|Battle of Brienne|
Napoleon is saved from Cossacks by Gaspard Gourgaud
|Date||29 January 1814|
|War||War of the Sixth Coalition; 1814 Campaign in France|
|About 30,000|| |
|About 3,000|| |
Arriving at the front to assume personal command of his army and having decided to try conclusions with Blucher's Army of Silesia first since it was closest, Napoleon raced to intercept the enemy before it could complete it's crossing over the Marne at Saint-Dizier. The French were too late, for Blucher had already moved his main force through the town and was making his way towards Brienne, leaving just a small rearguard behind him. It took a sharp engagement before the French retook Saint-Dizier. Captain Coignet recalled, "the town was literally riddled by the artillery and musketry fire - you could easily count thousands of holes in the wooden doors and shutters which balls had pierced... All the houses had been subjected to pillage and not a single inhabitant was able to remain in this unhappy town."
Napoleon was somewhat dissappointed with the action, for all he had to show for it were a few captured guns and a handful of prisoners. He was now determined to make up for lost time and immediately set out for Brienne in pursuit of Blucher, marching his forces in three rapid columns, while he sent off a message to Marshal Mortier, to order him to manoevre towards the French right flank from Troyes.
For Napoleon, luck was not on his side once again, for the roving Cossacks intercepted a copy of his orders to Mortier, and Blucher was thus forewarned and aware that Napoleon was now rapidly bearing down on his rear. Having only the Russian corps of Olsufiev at his disposal, Blucher now reacalled Sacken's corps from Lesmont and was able to receive 3,000 cavalrymen from the advance guard of Schwarzenberg's Army of Bohemia, and commanded by Count Pahlen, just on the nick of time.
From the terrace of the Chateau at Briene, Blucher and Gneisenau watched the approach of Napoleon through their telescopes as Pahlen's cavalry together with some light battalions took up his position's on the plain towards Maizieres, to cover the march of Sacken's corps, while Olsufiev held Brienne.
Napoleon, having covered the 30 miles to Brienne with his usual customary speed, at once began to attack during the late morning of the 29th of February. At this time, he only had Grouchy's cavalry and horse artillery at his disposal, so he skillfully utilised these to pin Blucher's troops down while he awaited the arrival of Marshal Ney's Young Guard divisions and Victor's II corps. With the arrival of his infantry during the mid afternoon, at last Napoleon was in a position to attack in force. Aided by the bombardment of Victor's and the Guard's artillery, Ney was ordered to advance with two divisions on Brienne, while one of Victor's brigades was sent to secure the Chateau itself. The remainder of Victor's II corps was sent to manoevere around the enemy right to cut off any escape attempt towards Bar-sur-Aube.
Blucher had for a while been content to watch the progress of the battle from the terrace of the Chateau, but when dinner was announced, he dutifully took of with his staff to whet his appetite. Very soon however, Count Pahlen's cavalry had fallen back to Brienne, having been repulsed in the fierce fighting. On the left however, Victor's main force had been obliged to give ground, as storming Brienne they were twice threw back by the Russian defenders and counterattacked by Pahlen's cavalry, sending them reeling back in some disorder. Within Brienne itself, many buildings were now on fire as French closed in admist the cannonballs which slammed into the Chateau itself.
Within the desperate fighting, which see-sawed either way for much of the afternoon, Napoleon himself, according to Coignet and other authorities, had had a narrow escape when he was almost captured by the Cossacks; a raid during which Lefebvre-Desnouettes was wounded. Recovering his composure quickly, Napoleon coolly led his tired conscripts back into the fray to continue the fight.
Blucher did not seem unduly disconcerted by the shellfire hitting the Chateau, considering the building solidly built as he and his staff enjoyed their dinner, and that the battle was as good as over. But, long after darkness had fallen, the 400 men of Victor's detached brigade, scrambled up the steep slopes to storm the ridge and the Chateau by the point of their bayonet's. With his capture imminent, Blucher now thought it prudent to make a quick exit and both himself and Gneisenau had a very narrow escape as the French entered one gate and they scrambled out of another.
With the capture of the Chateau which dominated the Brienne skyline, the battle seemed to be almost won for the French, for the battle seemed to die down. But in a final burst of energy, Blucher ordered a counterattack by his infantry against the Chateau in order to retake it .It was a vain hope, for now Ney stormed the slopes with his division's too and a ferocious slaughter ensued as the fighting became a mixed mess of tangled units, further confused by the flickering flames of burning buildings.The Russian corps of Sacken and Olsufiev, despite taking parts of Brienne could make no headway against the resolute French defenders of the Chateau, and by midnight Blucher's forces were in full retreat, leaving behind some 4,000 casulaties, before retiring southwards and handing Napoleon a victory which was inconclusive at best.
Though the battle had raised French morale, its results had not come up to Napoleon's expectations. Blucher had been mauled, but he was far from destroyed. Furthermore, the leading elements of the Army of Silesia had now been driven closer to Swarzenberg's forces near Trannes, about eight miles to the south, which he learnt of the next morning as his cavalry patrols brought in prisoners.
If Napoleon did feel reason to be pleased with his limited success, it was because his inexperienced conscripts had fought with vigor and heart, and now they had been blooded; Ney's corps particulary distinguishing themselves. Even so, he regretted that the Old Guard had been absent for he wrote to his war minister Clarke, "had I had old troops I could have done better... However, considering the circumstances and the troops I had, we should be pleased with the result."
In his first major action of his defence of France, Napoleon had returned to the scene of his youth, for as a schoolboy he had attended the Brienne Military Academy. According to Henri Lachouque in The Anatomy of Glory, there had been fighting in the college where Napoleon had spent his youth, and also the chapel where he had made his first communion, was filled wiith the groans of the wounded.
Lachouque goes on to say that after the battle was over, Father Heriot, the village priest who had taught the young Napoleon at Brienne, arrived upon one of one of Roustam's horses together with Napoleon, for he had been at the Emperor's side that day. Dismounting, he welcomed his old pupil into his rectory.
- The Campaigns of Napoleon by David Chandler
- The Anatomy of Glory by Commandant Henri Lachouque
- Napoleon: The Last Campaigns, 1813-15 by James Lawford