Battle of La-Rothière
Battle of La-Rothiere
The Battle of La-Rothière
Location La-Rothière
Date 1 February 1814
War War of the Sixth Coalition; 1814 Campaign in France
Outcome Coalition victory
France French Empire
Napoleon I
About 40,000
About 110,000
About 6,000
About 6,000

The Battle of La-Rothière, fought on the 1st of February 1814, about five miles south of Brienne, where Napoleon had won an inconclusive victory against Blucher's Army of Silesia just three days before.


After his limited success against Blucher at the Battle of Brienne, the overall strategic course of his campaign still remained unclear to Napoleon, for starved of reliable intelligence, the exact location and strengths of the Allies could only be guessed at. He knew that the longer he bided his time at Brienne, the greater the chances were that the Allies would concentrate in force, and this he was determined to prevent, knowing he must keep the two enemy armies dispersed if he had any hope of defeating them. Accordingly, he now thought to withdraw to Troyes, where Marshal Mortier stood with the Old Guard, or to MacDonald on the Marne.

Following Blucher through La-Rothière on the 30th in order to keep an eye on the enemy's movements, Napoleon bided his time to await further developments, but the heavy snowfalls hindered his intelligence through this period. He was unaware of the danger, that during this time, the Allies, having linked up near Trannes were in the very process of launching an all out attack against him. With the fog of war making him uncharacteristically indecisive, Napoleon wondered if maybe the Allies were plotting to keep him pinned down, whilst the main blow fell elsewhere.

By the 1st, Napoleon had at last made up his mind. He would fall back to Troyes. At 10:00 am, he gave the orders for a general withdrawal, Ney setting out immediately via Lesmont with his three divisions of the Young Guard. Marshal Marmont was ordered to occupy Lesmont itself. As the snow fell from the cold grey sky, the unexpected then happened; Marshal Victor reported that strong enemy columns were marching upon Brienne and Napoleon decided to stand his ground and accept battle in order to clarify whether it was a major attack or just a bluff while the axe fell elsewhere. With his army barely 40,000 strong, Napoleon's decision had placed the French army in great peril, but with the enemy column's rapidly closing, it had become too late to withdraw.


Battle of La-Rothiere 1814

A map of the battle.

Napoleon hastily recalled Ney, while the French deployed for battle; apprehensively awaiting the Allies attack. On the French left, Marmont drew up his men, while Victor occupied the centre of the French line, his right flank resting upon La-Rothière itself. Gerard's corps deployed around Dienville. Behind the centre, the cavalry divisions of Nansouty and Grouchy massed.

The Allied army, the command of which had been entrusted to Blucher, had now been reinforced by two from Schwarzenberg's army; those of Gyulai and Wurttemberg, binging his strength up to 53,000 men. In addition, Wrede's Bavarian's some 25,000 strong, were expected to make an appearnace on the field. In the rear Barclay de Tolly stood in reseve with another 35, 000 men.

With the Allies fielding 113, 000 men against Napoleon's paltry 40,000, it ws a very unequal contest, but the French rose to the occasion as out of the blinding blizzards, the enemy columns emerged at around 1:00pm to attack directly at La-Rothière, which was held by General Duhesme. Nansouty, noticing that the Russian gunners were aiming the elevation of their artillery too high, initiated Guyot to charge. The French cavalry charged with sabres drawn, to slaughter many of the gun crews, before withdrawing once again behind their own lines as the Russian's mounted a cavalry counterattack.

Soon the Allies launched a strong cavalry attack of their own, which in one ramming thrust managed to capture 24 guns of the Guard horse artillery, before being chased off by a rescue attack by Pire, as he threw in his chasseurs upon the Russian flank. Now the battle raged across the whole front as the infantry closed up. Gerard at Dienville, threw back the enemy, as they lauched successive attacks. At La-Rothière, under fire from the concentrated fire of 62 guns, Duhesme fought with tenacious skill to hold his positions, whilst Marmont holding the left flank came to grips with Wrede's 25,000 troops. Within the grip of the howling snowstorm, which cascaded heavily from the sky, many veterans on both sides could recall the terrible memories of Eylau in 1807.

Gerard held firm, Duhesme held his ground, but Napoleon's left flank held by Marmont began to unravel, as Wrede's Bavarian's began to gain ground. With the crack beginning to widen as Marmont's hard pressed men recoiled before Wrede's onslaught, Napoleon saw the danger to his whole line, even as a new onslaught by fresh troops under Barclay almost ejected Duhesme from La-Rothière. The crisis was now at two points, and Napoleon always at his best under pressure, proved equal to the occasion as he used Ney's nearest division to strike a telling blow against Barclay, who fell reeling back. Almost at the same time, he sent a mixed force consisting of Young Guard infantry, Guyot's cavalry and a single battery of guns to assist Marmont and check Wrede's dangerous thrust which might roll up his whole line. Within the desperate struggle on the left which churned the ground into a quagmire, the Bavarian cavalry charged the French infantry in an effort to pierce through Marmont's hard pressed line. In turn, due to the darkening gloom and the blinding snow, The Bavarian's were mistook for the enemy by the Wurttemberger's who furiously attacked them. In the ensuing confusion, Marmont was able to pull his stricken men back towards Brienne.

Russian and French troops at La-Rothiere

Russian and French troops engage at La-Rothière

Napoleon, north of La-Rothière, knew in his heart the battle was lost and only desired to withdraw. Duhesme was already pulling back in the face of superior odds, but he knew he must continue to fight to allow Marmont's men time to retire safely and so he now launched a counterattack at La-Rothière in an attempt to regain it and slow down the inevitable Allied advance. Charging into La-Rothière, the French began a point blank musketry duel with Olsufiev's Russian's. As the French threw back Olsufiev and Sacken in disorder, Sacken himself was almost captured, but the French failed to see him, crouching as he was between a horse and a house.

It was now 8pm, and with La-Rothière in flames, Napoleon who had led from the front all day in order to inspire his weary troops, finally gave the order for a general withdrawal as Blucher and Gneisenau unsuccessfully tried to bring up their reserves. With all his old skill Napoleon managed to break off the action all along the line as under cover of Drouot's artillery the French began their orderly retreat northwards.


Just over a year later, Napoleon would find himself in a similar predicament at the battle of Waterloo, as he found himself outnumbered, and with his right flank assailed by a strong flank attack by the Prussian which threatened to roll his line up. On that occasion, the political repercussions should he retire behind a strong rearguard and return to Paris without a victory, overrode his military wisdom with disastrous consequences.

On this occasion, Napoleon decided to retire behind a strong rearguard and fight another day. He would recover from his defeat at La-Rothière and fight a masterful campaign which would demonstrate his military genius had no equal, even if ultimately, he was defeated.

The news of La-Rothière shocked the French nation to the core, for nothing could diguise the fact that Napoleon had suffered an undeniable defeat on the battlefield. His soldiers were filled with an unspeakable despair and on the road to Troyes, Napoleon would lose some 4,000 men to desertion on top of the 6,000 he had lost on the battlefield. As his weary, downcast troops marched, even the grumblers of the Guard asked themselves "Where can we go from here?" whilst the marshals complained, "His pride is bringing us all to ruin..." When he finally got to Troyes on the 3rd, the inhabitant's gave Napoleon a decidedly cool reception by bolting all of their doors.Napoleon himself wavered in his self belief, becoming indecisive as he instructed Calaincourt to obtain peace on any terms he could get, then just as rapidly withdrawing his request as he insisted he would "Never demean himself or France."

The Allies from their point of view, despite also losing some 6,000 men, were quite understandably elated at having defeated the 'Emperor of Battles.' Blucher regaining Brienne on the 2nd, wrote home to his wife to say to his wife that it was the happiest time of his life after the Tsar Alexander congratulated him on his success by telling him, "Today you have set the crown on all your victories; mankind will bless you." Blucher was feted by his troops where ever he went and the victorious Allies, prematurely felt that the end of war was in sight, and drew up their plans for a victorious advance on the French capital.

But Napoleon had other plans. His plan of campaign was now crystalised, and in part it was dictated by what he knew of the temperament of the two Allied Generals; Blucher whom he knew to be reckless and driven by his hatred of the French, would race to capture Paris first, whilst Schwarzenberg, being more cautious and calculating would seek to drive on Paris more leisurely. Thus knowing his opponents, Napoleon knew his next move must fall upon Blucher's Army of Silesia.


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