Siege of Toulon
Egyptian Campaign I
Egyptian Campaign II
Italian Campaign I
Italian Campaign II
Italian Campaign III
Battle of Marengo
Battle of Trafalgar
Battle of Austerlizt
Battle of Jena/Auerstadt
Battle of Eylau
Battle of Friedland
Spanish Campaign I
Spanish Campaign II
Battle of Wagram
Battle of Borodino
Crossing the Beresina
Leipzig Campaign I
Leipzig Campaign II
Battle of Leipzig
Defense of France
Battle of Waterloo
Few events in history have been as inherently violent as the French Revolution. In the space of three short years France was transformed from a reactionary monarchy to a republic founded on the most radical ideas of the age. And yet the Revolution was only the beginning of a larger conflict, for with the overthrow and execution of King Louis XVI, the remaining monarchies of Europe quickly aligned themselves against the new French republic. Thus, for much of the next quarter century the French would find themselves embarked upon an historic quest in which nothing less than complete
domination would suffice to keep the republic alive and the country itself from invasion and dismemberment. Driven by a new and immensely powerful sense of national identity, this quest for empire would lead to warfare on an unprecedented
scale and ultimately transform the face of Europe.
At the center of this quest was a man who in many ways came to embody the turmoil of his times. Rising to prominence as a defender of the new French republic, Napoleon Bonaparte would go on to become Emperor of the French and nominal ruler of much of Europe. An intensely controversial figure, he would be both revered as a champion of the rights of man, and reviled as a ruthless despot. Whatever the truth of his character, however, the man and his times are best revealed within the series of conflicts known, aptly enough, as the Napoleonic Wars.
Siege of Toulon:
In July of 1793 the newly-formed French Republic was presented with a serious challenge when the coastal region known as the Midi rose up in revolt against the government in Paris. By the end of August, a make-shift Republican army under General Carteaux had subdued the region’s principal city, Marseilles, but shortly thereafter the citizens of nearby Toulon invited a combined Anglo-Spanish fleet under Lord Hood to enter Toulon harbor and undertake a royalist defense of the town. The Republican effort to retake Toulon would provide 24-year-old Napoleon Bonaparte with his first real command of troops in action, and would mark the beginning of his meteoric rise to power.
Revealing a keen sense of strategy, Captain Bonaparte quickly constructed a series of gun batteries overlooking the harbor and began shelling the enemy fleet. The bombardment wrought considerable destruction, but when return fire killed a number of his men, Carteaux called off the attack. Bonaparte’s next planned an assault on royalist-held Fort Mulgrave, but this too was overruled by Carteaux, at which point both sides settled in for a prolonged siege. In time, however, Carteaux was replaced by General Dugommier, who quickly adopted Bonaparte’s plans for a concerted attack on Fort Mulgrave. On the 17th of December, in heavy fighting in which Bonaparte himself was seriously wounded, the fort fell to the Republicans, and the following day–even as the young artillery officer had predicted–the enemy fleet evacuated Toulon.
For his part in the retaking of Toulon, Captain Bonaparte would receive promotion to brigadier general, yet in a portent of the controversy that was to surround his career, he would soon be implicated in the massacre of hundreds of Toulon’s citizens upon the Republican occupation of the town.
Italian Campaign I:
By the year 1796, the French Republic had been at war with a coalition of European monarchies for three years, during which time the fortunes of its armies had waxed and waned even as the government in Paris had struggled to establish a firm foundation. By March of ’96, with the formation of an executive body known as the Directory, French strategists abandoned a largely defensive posture in favor of an aggressive war plan designed to stabilize the country’s borders by carrying the fighting deep into enemy territory. It was a plan well-suited to the newly-appointed commander of the Army of Italy, General Bonaparte, who, with an ambition to match that of the republic itself, set out to drive the combined forces of Austria and Sardinia out of northern Italy.
Driving a wedge between the enemy armies north of Savona, Bonaparte scored early successes at Montenotte and Dego ,and by the end of April had cleared Piedmont of of both enemy armies. Moving quickly in pursuit, he was soon across the Po at Valenza and Piacenza, forcing the Austrian commander, Beaulieu, to scramble farther eastward to protect his line of communications. On May tenth, having chased the enemy as far as the River Adda, General Bonaparte led an inspired charge across a key bridge at Lodi in an episode that would become part of a growing legend surrounding his name.
Next, following a brief respite in which French forces occupied Milan, Bonaparte continued to pursue the enemy down the Po Valley, eventually forcing Beaulieu from the line of the Mincio and laying siege to the fortress-city of Mantua. Here, with his own line of communications now vulnerable, he paused to consolidate his remarkable gains.
Italian Campaign II:
Throughout the months of June and July, 1796, while General Bonaparte was busy consolidating his considerable gains in northern Italy, the Austrians steadily built up their forces in anticipation of a major counter-offensive under a new commander, General Wurmser. On the 29th of July, a central Austrian column struck south from Trent, driving the French back across the Mincio. Meanwhile, a flanking column advanced along the western shore of Lake Garda in an effort to trap the French in a well-conceived pincer movement.
Forced to defend his position on two fronts at once, Bonaparte abandoned the siege of Mantua and moved to prevent the union of the enemy’s two main columns at the foot of Lake Garda. In a series of fierce engagements near Lonato he repulsed the enemy’s flanking force, then turned to deal with Wurmser in a hard-fought battle at Castiglione. Here, on August third, the French once again prevailed, sending the Austrians reeling back across the Mincio, and reinstating the siege of Mantua.
Following several weeks of reorganization in the vicinity of Trent, Wurmser undertook another advance on Mantua during the first week of September, this time leading his main column south along the valley of the Brenta River. Learning of Wurmser’s movements even as he was leading his own attack on Trent, Bonaparte sent the better part of his force in pursuit along the upper Brenta, and himself raced south to head off Wurmser’s advance, seeking catch the enemy in a pincer movement of his own.
Meanwhile, ignoring the threatened French envelopment, Wurmser proceeded to Mantua, where he lifted the siege on September twelfth. His success was short-lived, however, for by the fifteenth his relieving force was itself surrounded, and Mantua, with the addition of Wurmser’s entire force, was once again completely invested by the French.
Italian Campaign III:
Despite the French success in bottling up Wurmser’s army in Mantua, General Bonaparte’s situation in northern Italy in November of 1796 was still fraught with difficulty. With the success of Austrian arms along the Rhine, fresh enemy troops were made available for the Italian front, and another Austrian advance was mounted to relieve Mantua, this time under the command of Baron Joseph Alvintzy. Advancing in two columns along the main river routes of the Brenta and the Adige, the Austrians readily drove the French back upon Verona, where the linking of the two attacking columns seemed imminent. Once again, Bonaparte was in a desperate situation, and this time any attempt to augment his forces by abandoning the siege of Mantua only threatened to loose the still-dangerous Wurmser.
Though privately despondent about his chances of success, Bonaparte exhorted his troops to a final effort to turn back the Austrian columns and devised a flanking maneuver designed to prevent Alvintzy from breaking through to Verona. In another feat of daring soon to be part of his growing legend, he led an attack across a key bridge at Arcola, then drove north against the Austrian line of communication, forcing Alvintzy back upon Vicenza.
In January of 1797 Alvintzy came forward once more, this time striking his main blow along the Adige. Racing north to meet it, Bonaparte managed a brilliant defensive battle at Rivoli, crushing the Austrian advance and sending Alvintzy’s shattered forces flooding back upon Trent. No sooner had victory been assured at Rivoli, however, than the French were forced to march south to prevent a second Austrian column from breaking into Mantua. The Austrian relieving force got within sight of the city, but no farther, and having suffered fearful losses from disease, the defenders of Mantua capitulated on February second.
In the months that followed, the French pressed their advantage in a final advance upon Vienna itself, driving an Austrian army under Archduke Charles eastward as far as Loeben, at which point the Austrians sued for peace. Thus, in less than a year, General Bonaparte had led his ill-equipped forces from a precarious foothold along the Ligurian coast to the doorstep of the mighty Austrian Empire, and in the process had proven himself a soldier of rare ability.
Egyptian Campaign I:
In the early months of 1798, with French fortunes seemingly on the rise, the Directory determined to attempt a cross-channel invasion of England, to be commanded by the recently-returned hero of the Italian Campaign. Upon reviewing preparations for the invasion, however, General Bonaparte misliked the chances of success and opted instead to strike at England through Egypt, an important link to her chief colony in India. Such was the successful young general’s influence that the plan was readily approved, and some 25,000 troops were assembled at Toulon, Genoa and Civitavecchia with plans to rendezvous at sea. Another 500 scientists and artists were to accompany the troops in what was to be a combined mission of conquest and exploration.
Narrowly escaping detection by a British fleet under Horatio Nelson, the expedition arrived off the Egyptian coast on the first of July, having seized and garrisoned the island of Malta en route. After capturing Alexandria and consolidating his position on the coast, Bonaparte led a main body of troops on a harrowing march across the desert while Mameluke forces prepared for battle near Cairo. By the 21st, battle was joined outside Embabeh, where the French formed divisional squares to shatter a series of enemy cavalry charges, then proceeded to drive much of the Mameluke army into the Nile.
Three days later, Bonaparte entered Cairo. His triumph would soon be tempered, however, by news of a resounding French defeat at Aboukir Bay, where British naval forces under Admiral Nelson all but destroyed the French invasion fleet, leaving the expedition effectively stranded. Thus, though the French would go on to occupy much of the Egyptian interior, the campaign was far from over.
Egyptian Campaign II:
Encouraged by the British naval victory at Aboukir Bay in August, 1798, the Islamic world declared a Holy War against the French and prepared to send two large armies into Egypt, one to march overland through Syria and the other to arrive by sea from Rhodes.
Learning of such plans, General Bonaparte set out from Cairo in February, 1799, intent on making a preemptive attack on the Turkish stronghold at Acre. Delays prevented the expedition from reaching Acre until March 18th, by which time the British naval commander Sir Sidney Smith had reached the fortress and prepared it for a prolonged siege. Meanwhile, the army of the Pasha of Damascus approached Acre from the northeast. On the 16th of April an isolated French division was nearly cut off and destroyed by the Turks near Mount Tabor, but Bonaparte’s timely arrival with and a large reserve force succeeded in routing the enemy, and thereby ending the Turkish threat of an overland invasion. Even so, Acre continued to hold out against the French seige, and on May 20th Bonaparte began a gruelling retreat to Egypt encumbered by hundreds of sick and wounded and harassed by hordes of Turkish cavalry.
Once back in the comparitive safety of Cairo, it remained for Bonaparte to defeat the second arm of the Turkish attack, which struck on July 15th with the landing of a large invasion force at Aboukir. Upon learning of the landings the French commander hurried all available forces to the scene, and in heavy fighting the French drove the newly-landed Turks into the sea.
Despite the French success on the ground, however, Bonaparte’s situation in Egypt remained essentially hopeless, and on August 22 he and a select group of officers slipped away aboard a small flotilla of frigates and sailed for France, leaving vague assurances that a rescue effort would soon be mounted for the rest of the expedition. No such effort was made, however, and two years later the surviving members of the expedition were repatriated by the British.
By September of 1799, France was once again at war with a coalition of European monarchies, and the government in Paris was showing signs of imminent collapse. Capitalizing on the weakness of the Directory and the excitement generated by his sudden return from the conquest of Egypt, General Bonaparte quickly engineered a coup d’etat and by the spring of 1800 had assumed to title First Consul of France with broad powers. On the military front, his most pressing concern was once again northern Italy, where a large Austrian army under General Melas had reconquered much of the territory won by France in the Italian Campaign. In response, Bonaparte assembled a large force in the vicinity of Dijon and prepared to recover the lost ground. Rather than follow the route of his previous campaign along the coast, however, Bonaparte proposed to enter Italy through the alpine passes much as Hannibal had done in Second Punic War.
Beginning on the 15th of May, a main French column negotiated the Great St. Bernard Pass and descended upon Fort Bard, where the Austrians held a commanding position over a narrow gorge. Slipping past the critical bottle-neck at night, a French corps under General Lannes established a foothold in the valley of the Po, while additional French forces began making their way through the less precarious Simplon and St. Gotthard Passes to the east. The enemy, meanwhile, fell back in general confusion and surprise. General Melas continued to hold his ground in the vicinity of Alessandria, however, and the Austrians were greatly heartened by the capitulation of French forces at Genoa on June second.
Fearful that the Austrians might now fall back upon their newly won prize at Genoa, Bonaparte was compelled to advance his timetable for a major engagement with Melas, and on the tenth of June the French began pressing south of the Po, besieging Piacenza and closing in on Alessandria. By the thirteenth, Bonaparte had concentrated his forces on a broad plain east of the city, yet fears that the Austrians would escape to the south continued to haunt him. Indeed, these fears were to play a major role in the coming battle.
Battle of Marengo:
On the morning of June 14, 1800, convinced that the Austrians would continue to withdraw rather than give battle, First Consul Bonaparte ordered two French corps to cover the enemy’s potential escape routes, sending General Lapoype north to block the enemy’s passage down the Po, while General Desaix marched south to prevent a withdrawal upon Genoa.
Meanwhile, the Austrian commander, General Melas, had determined to make an all-out effort to defeat the French in front of Alessandria, and shortly after dawn his forces began filing across the Bormida River and advancing upon the village of Marengo. Forming a defensive line in front of the town, General Victor’s troops put up a stubborn resistance, and General Lannes’ corps soon came into line on their right. The steadily increasing numbers of the Austrian advance eventually began to tell, however, and by mid-morning the French were falling back along a wide front.
It was ten o’clock before Bonaparte recognized the desperate reality confronting him, at which point he quickly sent messengers calling for the return of Desaix and Lapoype. As it happened, Desaix had been held up by the rain-swollen Scrivia River, and was still within eight miles of the field. It was going to be a close race, however, for by two o’clock the French line in front of Marengo had been completely shattered, and the men of Victor’s and Lannes’ corps were streaming eastward in defeat.
Indeed, thinking the battle won, General Melas turned over command to his subordinate, General Zach, and the Austrians paused to reform for a final push. The delay would prove critical. About three o’clock, General Desaix arrived at San Guiliano, followed closely by his leading division. These fresh troops were quickly brought into line with the rallied troops of Victor and Lannes on their right. Thus, a new battle developed several miles east of Marengo with the French once again on the defensive. As the Austrians attack came forward, Desaix himself would be among the first to fall, yet a combination of concentrated French artillery fire and a well-timed cavalry charge against the Austrian flank created a sudden reversal, and soon the attackers were in full flight back toward Alessandria with the French hard on their heels.
By nightfall the French were once again in possession of Marengo, and Bonaparte–having achieved victory by the narrowest of margins–was busy making political capital of his triumph.
Battle of Trafalgar:
By the fall of 1805, Napoleon had been forced to abandon his plans for an invasion of England when his naval commander, Admiral Villeneuve, failed to occupy the English Channel with a combined Franco-Spanish fleet. In October, having undertaken a major campaign against the Austrians at Ulm, the French Emperor ordered Villeneuve to take his fleet back to the Mediterranean, and early on the morning of the 21st, Villeneuve’s ships sailed out of Cadiz and bore south along the Spanish coast in hopes of escaping detection by a British blockading force. Soon after dawn, however, the English fleet under Admiral Nelson discovered them and sailed in pursuit, at which point Villeneuve ordered his ships to put about and head for Cadiz.
Shortly before noon battle was joined as the British ships bore down on the allies in two lines of sail: a lee column under Admiral Collingwood, and a windward column under Nelson. Striking the enemy line about midway, Collingwood’s ships attacked en echelon against the leward half of the line, while Nelson’s column, engaging the enemy some thirty minutes later, attacked the windward half. As the British ships passed through the enemy line, the battle quickly evolved into a sea-borne melee as both fleets pounded each other with over 4000 heavy guns.
By four o’clock, the leading French ships under Admiral Doumanoir had broken away from the main Allied line and come about, sailing back toward the battle in an effort to break up the English attack. Here as elsewhere, however, the French ships fell victim to superior British seamanship and gunnery, and were soon reduced to smoking hulks. In the end only thirteen Allied ships-of-the-line were able to escape capture or destruction. Remarkably, not a single British ship was lost.
Thus, the British achieved a resounding triumph, effectively removing the threat of invasion of their homeland and assuming unrivaled dominion of the seas. Though France would go on to score many victories in the ground war in Europe, the Battle of Trafalagar would ultimately prove decisive, creating conditions under which the French could scarcely hope to prevail in the larger struggle for domination of the continent.
By the fall of 1805, with the help of English subsidies, Austria had assembled another large army with which to defeat the French and restore the map of Europe to its pre-Revolutionary form. Despite the presence of a massive French army along the English channel, the Austrian strategists had convinced themselves that the main arena in the coming war would once again be northern Italy, and thus a disproportionate percentage of their forces were sent to that theater under the command of Archduke Charles. The central Danube corridor was to be held by Archduke Ferdinand operating under the de facto command of General Mack. Meanwhile three large Russian armies were to come up in support from Moravia. Here again, however, the Allies made a serious mistake, neglecting to take into account that the Russian calendar was a full ten days behind that of the rest of Europe. Thus the Allied timetable would be disastrously out of sync.
Meanwhile, Napoleon’s opening move was to send a large force of cavalry to the Rhine frontier opposite Baden where it would act as a decoy, leading the Austrians to anticipate an advance through the Black Forest. In response, General Mack occupied Ulm, thinking to have secured his right flank against Ansbach, a prinicipality of non-combatant Prussia. Napoleon, however, had no scruples against violating Prussia’s sovereignty, and sent his infantry corps on a wide sweep southeastward, through Ansbach toward Donauworth on the upper Danube. The speed of the French advance left the Austrians with little time to react, and by the ninth of October the French had crossed the Danube, effectively isolated Mack’s army at Ulm. Though Archduke Ferdinand managed to escape with part of his force across the wake of the French advance, General Mack’s efforts to break out of the trap were crushed and on the twentieth he was forced to capitulate.
Next, Napoleon sent the bulk of his forces swarming eastward to meet the advancing Russians. At the same time, Marshal Ney’s corps drove south to clear the Tyrol and establish contact with Massena’s Army of Italy. By the end of November the Allies had been driven back across the entire front, with Archduke Charles’ army isolated in southern Hungary and the Austrian and Russian armies scrambling to unite in Moravia. At this point, having cleared central Europe as far as Vienna, Napoleon was poised to fight a major battle near a place called Austerlitz.
Battle of Austerlitz:
As he had at the beginning of the campaign, Napoleon based his plans for the battle of Austerlitz on a strategic deception. With the allies in possession of the high ground at the center of the battlefield, the French emperor deliberately presented a weak right wing to the enemy, inviting an attack that threatened to cut off his line of retreat. In the French center, two divisions of Marshal Soult’s corps were to await the enemy’s anticipated move against the vulnerable right, then seize the high ground and divide the Allied force.
Battle was joined at first light in heavy morning fog, and by eight o’clock heavy fighting had developed as anticipated on the French right, with the village of Sokolnitz changing hands twice. By nine o’clock Allied troops on the heights had begun moving southward to reinforce the attack on Sokolnitz, and as bright sunshine began to pierce the lowlying fog, Napoleon gave the order for the central counter-attack. Moving quickly uphill, Marshal Soult’s divisions seized the village of Pratzen and advanced to the crest of the heights nearby. Caught unawares by the sudden thrust, the Allied commanders quickly sought to redirect the movement of reinforcements back toward their center, and heavy fighting blew up as the French struggled to beat back the returning enemy units. By noon, however, the crucial French maneuver had been accomplished and the Allies were falling back in confusion.
Meanwhile, Marshal Lannes had gone forward on the French left to meet the advance of Prince Bagration along the Olmutz highway. With the help of Murat’s reserve cavalry, the Allied attack in this quarter was repulsed, and it remained only for the French to concentrate against one sector of the enemy line to acheive a decisive breakthrough. Napoleon chose to deliver the final blow against the now-isolated Allied left, sending Vandamme and Bernadotte south to trap the enemy left wing against a series of lakes in the vicinity of Telnitz. About one o’clock an Austrian counter-thrust nearly succeeded in routing much of Vandammes’ corps, but by this time no Allied reserves remained to seize the opportunity, and the French quickly regained the upper hand. Now completely cut off, the Russians on the Allied left fled for their lives across thinly frozen ponds, where many were drowned when French artillery fire broke the ice beneath them. Late in the day, as an advancing snowstorm descended on the battlefield, the Allies were streaming eastward in defeat. Thus the battle ended in a resounding French victory, leaving Napoleon in nominal control of much of central Europe.
Having violated Prussian sovereignty during his advance on Ulm in October of 1805, Napoleon would add insult to injury in the peace negotiations that followed, deliberately snubbing Prussia for her refusal to join in an alliance with France. In response, Prussia sent her forces into Saxony and demanded French withdrawal from the German states. By the end of September, 1806, a mere nine months since his triumph at Austerlitz, Napoleon once again took the field to assert France’s growing dominance of Europe.
Advancing along a narrow front, the French marched northeast from Bamberg to drive between the Prussians and the Saxon capital at Dresden, and in an initial clash at Saalefeld, Marshal Lannes sent Prince Louis’ shattered forces reeling back toward Weimar. The Prussians, meanwhile, had sent two divisions arcing southwest from Erfurt against the French line of communications and held a reserve army at Magdeburg ready to descend on the French right, but the speed of the French advance quickly spread confusion through the enemy’s command. Their own offensive rendered moot, the Prussians were forced to make a hasty stand at Jena to cover a general withdrawal toward Prussian territory.
Battle of Jena/Auerstadt:
Having determined to withdraw northward and join with a reserve army, the Prussian commanders at Jena made plans to delay the enemy advance long enough to make good their escape. Thus Prince Hohenlohe was to engage the advancing French forces west of Jena, while the Duke of Brunswick led the bulk of the army north through Auerstadt toward Freiburg.
About dawn on the 14th of October, 1806, the French attack at Jena stepped off, descending the heights immediately west of the town and advancing against enemy forces situated on another broad hill known as the Dornberg. By noon, despite difficult terrain and heavy enemy resistance, the French had capitalized on their superior numbers to carry the Dornberg and turn Hohenlohe’s left flank, pressing the Prussians back upon Weimar.
Meanwhile, advancing westward from Naumburg, a single French corps under Marshal Davout had engaged a large enemy column withdrawing toward Freiburg. Unaware that he lay directly in the path of the greater part of the Prussian army, Davout sought to contain the enemy advance against increasingly long odds, and was soon driven back to the village of Hassenhausen, where the French were subjected to a series of concerted attacks. When the Prussian commander, the Duke of Brunswick, was mortally wounded, however, Davout’s outnumbered troops were able to regain the initiative.
By two thirty, Prussian resistance west of Jena had begun to crumble despite substantial reinforcement, and the Prussian line at Auerstadt was likewise buckling under a aggressive French flank-attacks. With their escape route cut off and enemy reinforcements continuing to arrive on the battlefield, the Prussians were soon in full flight along the entire front from Eckartsberg to Weimar. In the weeks that followed the French would complete the rout, chasing the remains of the Prussian army as far north as Hamburg. Thus, in a remarkably short campaign, Napoleon succeeded in removing another key player from the European chessboard.
With the virtual destruction of the Prussian army following the battle of Jena/Auerstadt, Russia remained the only major land power threatening the French hegemony of Europe, and thus became the main focus of Napoleon’s ongoing military operations. Even as much of his force was busy rounding up the retreating Prussians along the Baltic, the French emperor sent his vanguard racing eastward to confront a Russian army under the command of General Bennigsen.
Bennigsen, meanwhile, had advanced as far as the Vistula before news of the crushing defeat of his ally at Jena brought him up short. About the middle of November, with the leading elements of the French army on the Vistula, Bennigsen fell back first upon Warsaw, then north to a strong defensive position between the Narew and Wrka Rivers.
Despite the near-exhaustion of his troops and the approach of winter, Napoleon continued to press forward in hopes of defeating the Russians before the end of the campaigning season. The forests of east Prussia proved considerably less hospitable than the rich farmlands of Germany, however, and the French advance eventually ground to a halt at the end of December with the Russians in possession of Konigsberg and much of the country surrounding the Masurian Lakes.
No sooner had the Grand Army settled in for a much-needed period of rest and refitting, however, than Bennigsen–despite severe winter conditions–went on the offensive, striking westward in a move to open a corridor to Graudenz. During the first two days of January, 1807, the Russians drove the French back along a wide front, but the Grand Army quickly countered by racing north from the vicinity of Pultusk to threaten the Russian flank. Forced to withdraw lest his line of communications be cut, Bennigsen fell back toward Konigsberg, taking up a defensive position near the village of Eylau. Here, the two armies prepared to fight a desperate battle in the dead of winter.
Battle of Eylau:
Having driven the Russians back upon the village of Eylau in a week of brutal, mid-winter campaigning, the French succeeded in capturing the village on the evening of the seventh of February, 1807, winning for themselves a degree of shelter during a night of frigid winds and heavy snow squalls. Though vital reinforcements destined for both armies had not yet reached the field, battle was joined shortly after dawn on the eighth with a thunderous artillery duel that turned the already murky skies into a hellish backdrop of smoke and sleet.
By 9:30 Marshal Davout’s troops had come into line on the French right and begun fighting their way into the village of Serpallen. Meanwhile, however, on the opposite end of the line, Soult’s corps was taking a severe pounding from massed guns along the Russian center. With his left falling back in confusion, Napoleon countered by sending Augereau’s corps forward to assist Davout in turning the enemy’s flank. Wading through knee-deep snows and into the teeth of a raging blizzard, Augereau’s men were subjected to a withering bombardment followed by a Russian cavalry charge that broke up their formations and left them milling helplessly between the contending lines.
At this point, his battle plan having gone badly awry, Napoleon sought to cover Augereau’s withdrawal by sending his cavalry reserve forward. Making their way across the frozen landscape, Murat’s troopers succeeded in breaking through the Russian lines only to discover their escape route blocked when Russian infantry closed ranks behind them. This fresh predicament prompted Napoleon to order a second cavalry charge to rescue the first, and by the time these various maneuvers were completed the greater part of both armies lay dazed and exhausted.
By midafternoon, with the French center and left effectively fought-out, it remained for Davout’s corps to drive home its attack on the right. Advancing as far as the village of Kutschitten, Davout’s troops succeeded in bending the Russian line back upon itself. By this time, however, Russian reinforcements under General Lestocq had crossed the Russian rear from Althof to turn back the French advance. Though Lestocq’s arrival would be closely followed by that of Marshal Ney’s corps, the eleventh hour Russian counterattack succeeded in acheiving a tactical stalemate as night fell quickly over the battlefield. By the morning of the ninth the Russians had withdrawn upon Konigsberg, and with casualties amounting to over a third of their original number, the French were in no condition to mount an aggressive pursuit.
Having experienced his first foretaste of defeat in the costly and inconclusive Battle of Eylau in February of 1807, Napoleon spent the rest of the winter and much of the spring resting and refitting his army. With the German states showing signs of unrest and the French people themselves balking at the blockade of British goods, he could ill afford another such battle, and thus he set about to ensure a swift and certain conclusion of the campaign in the spring.
During the first week of June, emboldened by his determined stand at Eylau, General Bennigsen moved out of his newly constructed fortress at Heilsberg to begin an assault against the French line along the Passarge River. The Russian advance ran into the stubborn defensive tactics of Marshal Ney, however, and was quickly turned back, opening the way for a French counter-offensive.
Driving the Russians back upon Heilsberg, the French quickly enveloped the enemy stronghold, eventually forcing Bennigsen to withdraw lest he be surrounded and cut off. On the eleventh of June the Russian commander crossed east of the Alle River and moved north, seeking to unite with Lestocq’s army and additional Russian reinforcements in the vicinity of Konigsberg. On the evening of the thirteenth, Bennigsen reached a point immediately east of the village of Friedland. Here, despite the arrival of a French corps under Marshal Lannes, he began crossing the Alle on a series of pontoon bridges to occupy the town. By seizing Friedland the Russian commander sought to gain the highway to Konigsberg, but the presence of Marshal Lannes’ corps and the proximity of Napoleon’s main force would make his position west of the river a precarious one.
Battle of Friedland:
Throughout the early morning of June 14, 1807, the Russian commander at Friedland, General Bennigsen, continued to move his army across the Alle River, deploying his forces in two main divisions immediately west of the town. Opposing him was a single French corps of less than half his own numbers, and around nine o’clock, with sufficient forces in place, he ordered a general advance. Despite heavy fighting the thin French line managed to hold, and by mid morning the Russian offensive had ground to a halt. At this point, though they had gained room to maneuver, the Russians remained with their backs to the Alle and their overland escape route to the north effectively in enemy hands, yet Bennigsen was content to remain in place and rest his weary troops. It would prove a greivous mistake.
About noon, Napoleon arrived on the scene with some sixty thousand reinforcements, and immediately set about to exploit Bennigsen’s predicament. Bringing his fresh troops into line, he spent much of the afternoon preparing to deliver a series of body blows designed to drive the Russians into the river. By five o’clock all was ready, and Marshal Ney’s corps started forward on the French right, driving the Russians out of Sortlack and onto a narrow neck of land formed by the river. Next, continuing northward, Ney advanced upon Friedland itself, but was driven back by concerted artillery fire and a charge of the Russian cavalry.
Even as Ney’s men were driven off, however, Dupont’s division came forward to fill the void, driving the enemy back into Friedland, where the Russian units eventually devolved into a mob of stragglers fleeing for their lives. Meanwhile, north of the Muhlen Floss, the Russian right flank came under heavy attack from Lannes and Mortier’s corps, and was likewise shattered. By sundown, though Uvarov’s cavalry had managed to escape to the north, the remains of Bennigsen’s infantry were driven lemming-like into the river, where many would drown attempting to cross.
With the decisive French victory at Friedland, Napoleon brought to a close an extended campaign that had begun to previous October with his advance on Jena. Now on the threshold of the defeated Russian Empire, he had become undisputed master of the continent.
Spanish campaign I:
Destined to become one of the great strategic mistakes of Napoleon’s career, the Spanish campaign had its origins in a desire to avenge a British attack on neutral Denmark. In reprisal, Napoleon sent an overland expedition to Lisbon in hopes of seizing the fleet of England’s ally, Portugal. Due in part to insufficient cooperation from the Spanish, however, the mission failed of its objective, and the French emperor took out his frustration by orchestrating an overthrow of the Spanish throne.
In April of 1808 the Spanish king was forced to renounce his crown in favor of a monarch of Napoleon’s choosing. When the French attempted to remove the 14-year-old Prince Francisco from the royal palace, however, the boy put up a struggle, and the population of Madrid suddenly rose up in revolt. The brutal French repressions which followed only fed the fires of Spanish nationalism, and soon the entire country was engaged in a savage guerilla war against the French army of occupation.
In the first phase of the fighting, Spanish regulars surrounded and captured a force of some 17,000 French troops at Baylen, following up their success with an advance on Madrid. With the entire country in revolt, the French-backed king, Joseph Bonaparte, abandoned the capital and withdrew to Vitoria. Meanwhile, a British expedition under Arthur Wellesley landed in Portugal, driving French occupation forces back upon Lisbon.
By November of 1808 Napoleon had himself assumed control of the campaign, undertaking a well-orchestrated advance upon Madrid. Defeating a series of Spanish forces, he reoccupied the capital on December third and went on to reinstate his brother on the Spanish throne. His forced occupation of Spain quickly proved a persistent drain on French resources, however, and would have far-reaching consequences for his European empire, giving the lie to his role as liberator and feuling a growing propaganda war.
Spanish campaign II:
Having regained Madrid in a swift, well-orchestrated campaign in November and December of 1808, Napoleon might well have wished to rest his weary forces and prepare for a new campaign in the spring. By this time, however, a British expedition under Sir John Moore had advanced from Lisbon with plans to unite with another British army under David Baird in the vicinity of Valladolid. Thus, within three weeks of his arrival in Madrid, Napoleon was compelled to resume operations in an effort to crush the forces of his inveterate enemy, England.
Meanwhile, determined to strike at the French rear, in December of 1808 Moore advanced upon Burgos. Reports of Napoleon’s near approach quickly sent him racing for the coast, however, and soon both armies were struggling to cross the Cantabrian Mountains amid deep winter snows. Reaching Coruna on the eleventh of January, 1809, Moore was forced to wait another three days for the arrival of British transports, by which time Marshal Soult had arrived outside the city. In heavy fighting on the 15th, Moore himself was killed, but the bulk of his army was embarked and taken off to safety.
By this time, Napoleon had been compelled to return to Valladolid by reports of various intrigues within the government in Paris, and by the end of January he was on his way back to the French capital to reassert control. Disgusted by the guerilla-style warfare in Spain, he would not return, and despite the best efforts of his marshals, the open wound that was Spain would continue to weaken his Empire.
In the spring of 1809, with Napoleon’s efforts to subdue Spain continuing to absorb the manpower and resources of the French Empire, Austria seized the opportunity to avenge her losses of the previous twelve years by opening a second front in the east. Inviting the German states to throw off the French yoke, the Austrians moved swiftly to envelop the French position in and around Ratisbon, sending an army under General Bellegarde southwest from Bohemia, while another under Archduke Charles advanced up the Danube. While Napoleon in Paris scrambled to assemble fresh levies of troops and supplies for the coming campaign, French forces at Ratisbon were forced to hang on until sufficient reinforcements could arrive.
Upon Napoleon’s arrival at the front on the eighteenth, however, the French counter-offensive began to take shape. While Marshal Davout withdrew from Ratisbon through a narrow defile along the Danube, French forces went on the attack at Abensburg, routing three Austrian corps under Prince Louis and sending them fleeing southward. Meanwhile, Davout managed to drive Archduke Charles back upon Eckmuhl, where, with the help of a newly-organized corps under Marshal Lannes, the French scored a signal victory on the 22nd.
Having turned back the Austrian advance in Bavaria, the French quickly advanced eastward, and by the middle of May the Grand Army was once again in Vienna, while the Austrians lay across the Danube immediately opposite their capital. At this point, French engineers went to work on an extensive pontoon bridge from the southern bank of the Danube to a large island near the opposite shore. By the twentieth a large French force had crossed to the island and made its way onto the opposite shore near the villages of Aspern and Essling. On several occasions, however, the Austrians managed to break the pontoon bridge by sending large floating rams downstream, and in heavy fighting over the course of the next two days, Archduke Charles handed Napoleon the first tactical defeat of his career, blasting the French back onto Lobau Island. Marshal Lannes himself was mortally wounded in the action, and suddenly the French reputation for invincibililty was called into question.
Nevertheless, in little more than a month Napoleon regrouped his forces, setting the stage for another great battle.
Battle of Wagram:
In the spring of 1809, the hopes of anti-French forces throughout Europe were suddenly on the rise. In addition to the Austrian victory at Aspern-Essling in May, on the Iberian peninsula the British had driven Marshal Soult out of Portugal, and it remained to be seen if the French could continue the war on two fronts at once.
Preparing for Napoleon’s next move at Vienna, the Austrian high command ordered Archduke John to move north from Carinthia to prevent a possible crossing of the Danube at Pressburg. This in turn enabled Eugene’s Army of Italy to join Napoleon, and by the end of June each side had assembled over 150,000 men in preparation for a major battle.
To protect against another assault from Lobau Island, Archduke Charles ordered the construction of a series of entrenchments in front of Aspern and Essling, yet the Austrian commander made little effort to seize the island itself, leaving the French free to turn it into a formidable staging ground. Driving pilings into the river bottom immediately upstream from the pontoon bridge, French engineers effectively prevented any further attempts to break the bridge with drifting rams, and on the night of July 3rd large numbers of troops made the initial crossing.
The next evening, under cover of a violent thunderstorm, the first French assault wave crossed onto the mainland along the island’s eastern shore, avoiding the Austrian entrenchments in front of Aspern and Essling and meeting scant resistance. The next day a total of six French corps crossed along the same route, driving off the defenders of the two villages and quickly pressing the Austrians back along a wide front. Racing north and west, they came into line along the Wagram Plateau, where Charles had prepared his main defense. On the French left, Marshal Bernadotte’s corps was positioned opposite Wagram itself. On the morning of July sixth, however, Bernadotte withdrew in fear of being outflanked, at which point the Austrians began a counterattack on both ends of the line. Forced to shift to their right to cover the gap left by Bernadotte, Massena’s troops were eventually driven all the way back to Aspern, but by late afternoon Napoleon had regained control, ordering Macdonald to advance in a massive square which succeeded in turning back the Austrian advance and stabilizing the French line. Meanwhile, on the extreme right, Marshal Davout had made steady progress, turning the enemy’s flank and forcing Charles out of his main defensive line around Wagram. By nightfall the Austrians were in full retreat to the northwest, and the French domination of Europe was reconfirmed.
By the year 1812, partly as a result of his own marital alliance with Austria, Napoleon had seen his former ally, Czar Alexander, grow increasingly defiant toward the French Empire. When the Russian czar refused to honor the French blockade of England, war grew imminent. By June the French emperor had assembled a massive army of over half a million men along the Russian frontier with which was determined to subdue Russia in a great campaign that would prove once and for all the invincibility of French arms.
On the 23rd, the French crossed the Niemen River into Russian territory to begin an epic campaign aimed at the heart of the Russian empire, Moscow. Advancing eastward across a broad front, the Grand Army initially met little opposition, as the Russians systematically fell back before the enemy’s overwhelming strength. The coordination and supply of such a large army across the vastness of the Russian steppe quickly proved a logistical nightmare, however, taxing even Napoleon’s organizational genius, as fierce summer heat, poor roads, and a hostile population brought about innumerable delays and complications.
By the middle of August the French had reached the outskirts of Smolensk, where the Russians mounted their first concerted defense. After a two-day battle, however, the Russians once again withdrew to the east, forcing the invaders to extend their already-strained logistical network still farther. Growing more and more anxious to score a decisive military victory that might conclude the campaign, Napoleon pursued them to the village of Borodino, some seventy miles west of Moscow. Here, drawn up behind hastily-prepared defensive earthworks, the Russians would make a determined defense of their traditional capital in what would be one of the bloodiest battles of the Napoleonic Wars.
Battle of Borodino:
The opening round of the Battle of Borodino took place on the fifth of September, 1812, with a French assault on an isolated Russian fort at Shevardino. Seizing the position late in the day, the French vanguard opened the way for a larger deployment south of the Kalatsha River. Throughout the following day, the 6th, both armies came into position along a line running from Borodino south to the village of Utitza, where the Smolensk Road provided a likely route of attack against the Russian left flank. Indeed, as Marshal Davout argued, a concerted attack up the Smolensk Road promised to turn the Russian flank and drive the enemy into the angle formed by the Kalatsha and Moskva Rivers.
The plan was overruled, however, by Napoleon, who chose to make a series of frontal assaults against the Russian line despite the presence of highly-defensible enemy earthworks. The decision would lead to a grinding battle of attrition in which the French commander would play a strangely passive role, remaining in the vicinity of Shevardino throughout much of the action.
On the French left, Prince Eugene quickly occupied Borodino and succeeded in driving off a Russian cavalry assault, thwarting the enemy’s one and only effort to mount an offensive. Meanwhile, after much hard fighting, Marshal Ney captured the series of fortifications known as the Fleches and advanced on the central village of Semyonovskaya. About one o’clock, the battle’s climactic action took place when an attack of heavy cavalry under General Caulaincourt went forward against the massive Russian fort known as the Great Redoubt. The attack was followed by a well-timed infantry assault, giving the French control of the center of the battlefield and seemingly bringing them to the brink of a larger victory. Despite the urging of his subordinates, however, Napoleon refused to order a final assault that might have shattered the Russian army altogether. Instead, loath to commit his reserves while so deep in enemy territory, he allowed the battle to devolve into an artillery duel, eventually giving the Russians the chance to withdraw under cover of darkness.
Thus, though he could claim a tactical victory, Napoleon’s strategic situation following the battle remained much the same, and his failure to crush the Russian army would eventually come back to haunt him.
Though staggered by the horrific losses suffered at Borodino a week earlier, the Grand Army arrived in front of Moscow on the 14th of September, 1812, close on the heels of the Russian rearguard. With the enemy’s forces clearly in retreat, Napoleon spent much of the 14th outside the gates of the city awaiting official word of its surrender. Instead, to his amazement, he discovered that Moscow was all but empty, its entire population having fled to the south. An even greater surprise awaited him, however, as a series of mysterious fires were soon reported in various parts of the city.
By the 16th, Moscow was burning out of control, and Napoleon was forced to abandon his new quarters in the Kremlin to escape the conflagration. The next three days he spent in Petrovski, north of the city, where he struggled to come up with a plan, clearly baffled by the enemy’s determination to resist conquest. In the end, upon learning that much of the Kremlin remained intact, he decided to return to Moscow and await Czar Alexander’s eventual capitulation. He would remain in Moscow for nearly a month, allowing himself to be strung along by hints of a Russian peace agreement. During the second week of October, however, the enemy’s deception became apparent when the French vanguard came under sudden attack at Tarutino.
Convinced at last of the enemy’s intentions, Napoleon departed Moscow on the ninteenth, sending his columns southwest toward the village of Maloyaroslavets. Here, the leading elements of both armies clashed in heavy fighting on the 24th, and the next day, after nearly falling victim to a band of Cossacks, the emperor decided on a general retreat along the main road to Smolensk. The decision would force the army to march through country already picked clean of supplies by the advance, a hardship that would soon be compounded by the first snows of winter. With the Russians in close pursuit, the retreat would soon degenerate into an agonizing odyssey of suffering and loss in which the Grand Army would be all but destroyed in one of the greatest military disasters in history.
Crossing the Beresina:
Having already undergone tremendous hardship in its flight from Moscow, the Grand Army faced the greatest challenge of the return march some 200 miles from the Polish frontier, where it was forced to cross the ice-filled Beresina River in the presence of three converging Russian armies.
Charged with seizing a crucial bridge at Borisov, Marshal Oudinot advanced on the town on the 22nd of November, but was unable to prevent the Russians from burning the bridge. Next, Oudinot was ordered to find a suitable point at which new bridges might be constructed, and on the 25th French engineers went to work at the village of Studenka.
Meanwhile, west of the river, General Tshitshagov succumbed to various French subterfuges and ordered the bulk of his forces south to prevent an expected move on Bobruisk. With the west bank of the river in front of Studenka now largely undefended, Oudinot quickly established a foothold on the opposite shore, and by afternoon, with the first of two bridges complete, the French vanguard began streaming across.
By the next morning, both Oudinot and Ney’s corps had crossed and were soon engaged in fighting off Tshitshagov’s troops near Bolshoi-Stakhov. Meanwhile, another Russian army under Wittgenstein had closed in on the remaining French corps east of the river, and on the night of the 27th the Russians succeeded in cutting off and destroying an entire division of the French rearguard. By the morning of the 28th, however, the bulk of the Grand Army had made the crossing, and continued its march westward, abandoning some 10,000 stragglers who had been unable to cross.
In the end, out of an army that had originally numbered over 400,000, less than 30,000 survivors of the French invasion force would reach Polish territory.
Leipzig Campaign I:
In the aftermath of the disastrous retreat from Moscow, Napoleon’s web of alliances in eastern Europe quickly began to unravel. In the early months of 1813 the Prussians and the Swedes, now under the former French Marshal, Bernadotte, allied themselves with the advancing Russians, while the Austrians for the moment remained neutral.
Once again raising a large army from every available source of French manpower, Napoleon started east from Paris in April of 1813, bringing his green troops into line on the right of Prince Eugene’s forces at Magdeburg. On the 30th the reconstituted Grand Army crossed the Saale River and advanced upon Leipzig. This was not the same army that had crossed into Russia the previous summer, however, and the opening moves of the campaign soon revealed its shortcomings. On May second, while Napoleon rode forward to survey the approaches to Leipzig, Allied forces under General Wittgenstein struck the French right flank at Lutzen, having crossed the entire French front undetected. Responding quickly, Napoleon was able to recover and drive the enemy off, but the battle cost him 22,000 casualties and pointed up the weakness of his cavalry arm.
From Lutzen, the French pursued the allies to the Saxon capital at Dresden, forced the Elbe River and continued as far as Bautzen, where the combined Russian and Prussian army made a stand along the Spree River. Here a two-day battle was fought on May 20-21 in which a French flank attack fell just short of cutting off and destroying the entire Allied force. At this point, Napoleon was well on his way to reasserting his domination of central Europe, and on June 4, having advanced as far as the Oder River, he agreed to a six-weeks armistice in hopes of negotiating a larger peace.
Leipzig Campaign II:
Recognizing the tenuousness of his situation both politically and militarily, Napoleon had agreed to an armistice in early June 1813 in hopes of concluding a durable peace. The Allies desired no such thing, however, and Wellington’s triumph at Vitoria, Spain, on June 21st only hardened their resolve to defeat the French once and for all. Even more heartening to the Allied cause were secret arrangements for an Austrian entry into the war, and thus the Allied offer of peace, known as the Treaty of Reichenbach, proposed nothing less than the complete dismantling of the French Empire. In a meeting with the Austrian diplomat, Prince Metternich, Napoleon stormed in rage, but gained nothing more than a two-week extension to the armistice. Even this quickly proved meaningless when on August 12th the Austrians declared war and two days later the Prussians went on the attack in Silesia.
With the entry of the Austrian army in the war, the Allies suddenly enjoyed a decided numerical superiority. Nevertheless, maintaining a healthy respect for Napoleon’s military genius, the Allied commanders determined on a strategy designed to prevent the French emperor from concentrating his forces against any one opponent. Thus, in the first weeks of the renewed fighting, while Napoleon drove Blucher back toward Breslau, Schwarzenberg attacked Dresden and Bernodotte moved south from Berlin.
Turning to confront Schwarzenberg, Napoleon scored a major victory in the Battle of Dresden on the 26th and 27th of August, and proceeded to drive the Austrians back across their frontier. In the ensuing pursuit, however, one of his corps was cut off and nearly destroyed, enabling Schwarzenberg to recover. Meanwhile, Bernadotte drove Oudinot’s corps back upon Wittenberg, narrowing the breadth of the French salient considerably. Next, Blucher once again went on the attack, catching the French astride the Katzbach River near Leignitz and routing them. Thus, the Allied strategy proved effective. Throughout the month of September, though Napoleon’s presence on any one front continued to prove decisive, French forces were gradually driven back, and by the first week of October, still seeking a decisive battle, the French emperor began withdrawing upon Leipzig.
Battle of Leipzig:
By the tenth of October, 1813, Napoleon’s predicament in Saxony had become critical. Through a series of aggressive moves both Blucher and Bernadotte had taken up positions north west of Leipzig, and Schwarzenberg was on his way north from the Austrian frontier, moving to close off Napoleon’s only remaining avenue of retreat.
Coming into line south of Leipzig on the damp and foggy morning of October 16, the Austrians moved first on their left, advancing against Lindenau and Connewitz. Napoleon awaited the development of the Austrian attack, then went on the offensive, sending Macdonald and Sebastiani against the enemy’s right flank. The French counter-attack succeeded in capturing a strategic hill known as the Kolm Berg, and nearly broke through the Austrian center east of Crobern. At the decisive moment, however, the French cavalry commander, Latour-Maubourg, was wounded, and in the ensuing confusion the Austrians were able to stabilize their flank.
Meanwhile, north of the city, Blucher had advanced against Marmont’s corps, gaining the village of Mockern. Thus, as the first day’s fighting came to an end, the French had given up as much territory to the north as they had gained against the Austrian center to the south. Though he could scarcely pretend to be negotiating from strength, Napoleon nevertheless made overtures for an armistice.
Predictably, the offer only convinced the Allies of the enemy’s increasing desperation, and on the seventeenth, while both sides continued to bring up reinforcements, Napoleon made plans for a fighting withdrawal to the southwest. Throughout the eighteenth, with Bernadotte and Bennigsen on hand, the Allies completed their envelopment east of Leipzig and closed in, driving the French into a circle some two miles in diameter. Meanwhile, Bertrand’s corps cleared the French escape route through Lindenau, and early on the morning of the nineteenth Napoleon began an orderly withdrawal in which much of the army escaped. When the main bridge across the Elster River was blown prematurely, however, the army’s rearguard was trapped, and many, including Marshal Poniatowski, were killed or captured in the attempt to swim the river. Thus the engagement–known as the Battle of the Nations–ended in a resounding Allied victory.
Defense of France:
Encouraged somewhat by his victory at Hanau during the retreat from Leipzig, Napoleon returned to French territory with some 80,000 hard-used troops and, despite mounting opposition to his regime at home, prepared to carry on the fight. With the Allies determined to maintain the initiative, however, he would have precious little time to organize a defense of the French homeland.
In early fighting at La Rothiere, the Prussians under the stalwart Gebhart Blucher, were able to fend off an enemy surprise attack and eventually turn the tables on the French, forcing Napoleon to retire upon Troyes. Meanwhile, confident that the presence of a large Austrian army along the upper Seine would fix Napoleon’s main force to the south, Blucher headed north to the Marne River.
Stung by his first defeat on French soil, Napoleon left a holding force in front of the Austrians and gave chase, determined to knock the Prussians out of the war. At Champaubert and Montmirail he succeeded in routing two Prussian corps, but both were able to escape destruction by crossing the Marne at Chateau-Thierry and destroying a key bridge behind them.
Next, with the Austrians across the Seine at Montereau, Blucher again went on the offensive, this time advancing straight into a French trap at Vauchamps. Only a sudden and headlong retreat saved the Prussians from destruction. At this point, shifting his front, Napoleon advanced to the south, driving the Austrians back as far as Troyes. Indeed, for a time the French seemed to be gaining despite very long odds. By the beginning of March, however, the Allies had managed to outface General Moreau and seize Soissons. In response, Napoleon once again raced north, this time driving the Prussians back upon Laon. Here on the seventh of March the Prussians routed a French flank guard in a daring night attack, and suddenly Napoleon was reeling back to the south.
Increasingly harried by the demands of fighting on two fronts, his troops nearing the end of their endurance, Napoleon made a final, desperate bid to draw the enemy away from Paris by threatening the Austrian line of supply at St. Dizier. Instead of falling back to protect their communications, however, both Blucher and Scwarzenberg raced for Paris. On the thirtieth of March the city’s defenders were driven out in desperate fighting and shortly thereafter Marshal Marmont voluntarily surrendered. With his capital occupied by the Allies and his own forces in confusion, Napoleon was compelled to abdicate at Fontainebleau on April 4, 1813.
Upon his escape from Elba and return to power in March of 1815, Napoleon once again worked prodigies of recruitment and organization, rebuilding French forces largely dismantled under the restoration. Meanwhile, the Allied leaders meeting at the Congress of Vienna had quickly agreed to send two large armies into Belgium, an Anglo- Dutch force under the Duke of Wellington, and a Prussian army under Gebhart Blucher.
Seeking to beat the Allies to the punch, during the first week of June, Napoleon secretly began assembling his new Army of the North along the Belgian frontier with plans to drive a wedge between the Allied forces and defeat them one at a time. Stepping off on the fifteenth, the French spearhead drove an isolated Prussian corps northeast as far as Ligny, and eventually came into contact with Anglo-Dutch forces near Quatre-Bras.
The next day, while both Allied commanders scrambled to respond to the enemy incursion, Napoleon massed the bulk of his force in front of Ligny and prepared to trap the Prussians by sending his left wing into their rear from the direction of Quatre-Bras. When the French left became bogged down, however, he ordered d’Erlon’s corps to march upon the Prussian flank from the Brussels Highway. In the confusion of the last-minute change in plans, d’Erlon veered off course, arriving in rear of Vandamme’s corps at Ligny and sending panic through the French lines. Realizing his mistake, d’Erlons promptly countermarched his corps to the northwest, but in the end both wings of the French army were denied crucial reinforcements.
Eventually sending the Old Guard forward at Ligny, Napoleon succeeded in shattering the Prussian line, yet failed to achieve the planned envelopment that might have destroyed Blucher’s army altogether. An even larger failure, perhaps, would occur the following morning, when Marshal Ney allowed the Anglo-Dutch army to disengage at Quatre-Bras and slip away to the north. Thus, on the seventeenth, both Allied armies were able to withdraw essentially intact, with Blucher falling back upon Wavre, while Wellington withdrew to a low ridge near the village of Waterloo. Here, after a day of heavy rains, both sides prepared for a major battle that was to decide the fate of Europe.
Battle of Waterloo:
Destined to become the climactic engagement of the Napoleonic Wars, the Battle of Waterloo began late on the morning of June eighteenth, 1815, following delays caused by recent, heavy rains. About 11:20, Napoleon ordered a diversionary attack on Hougomont, the westernmost of three farm complexes dominating the approaches to the Allied position at Mont St. Jean. The French advanced across a low wall and through a section of wood, yet were unable to break into the farm’s main compound, and for the next two hours the fighting at Hougomont grew more and more intense as reinforcements were fed in on both sides.
Just before two o’clock, French prospects darkened considerably as large numbers of Prussian troops were seen massing east of Ohain. Contrary to Napoleon’s assumptions, Blucher’s army had not been driven off, and was preparing to come up in support of the Allied left. Nevertheless, counting on the success of an overwhelming infantry assault against the ridge east of the Brussels highway, Napoleon ordered d’Erlon’s corps forward behind a massive artillery bombardment.
Advancing in column formation, d’Erlon’s divisions ascended the ridge and succeeded in routing a Belgian brigade before concerted Allied volleys brought the westernmost column to a halt just short of the Ohain Road. Here, while the French struggled to redeploy into line of battle, a well-timed charge of British cavalry broke them up, eventually sending d’Erlon’s entire corps streaming back in headlong retreat.
By four o’clock Napoleon’s right flank had been largely reorganized, and following another massive French bombardment, Marshal Ney led another advance against the central farmhouse at LaHaye Sainte. Meanwhile, Wellington ordered his troops to withdraw a hundred paces to shelter from the enemy shells, whereupon the impetuous Ney, believing the enemy to be in retreat, ordered an attack of Milhaud’s heavy cavalry. The French horsemen went forward only to find the Anglo-Dutch forces standing firm in defensive squares, however, and could make little impression on the enemy infantry. Shortly thereafter the balance of the French cavalry reserve was ordered forward, yet despite repeated charges the Allied line held.
By six o’clock the Prussians had arrived in force on the French right, where desperate fighting took place in and around the village of Plancenoit. Increasingly in danger of being enveloped, Napoleon made a final effort to break through the Allied line west of the Brussels highway, sending the Imperial Guard forward in a last, desperate effort to win the day. All five battalions were repulsed by an aggressive British defense, however, and as word of the Guard’s failure spread, the French line suddenly began to collapse from right to left. By nightfall the French were in full retreat toward Charleroi. The battle, the campaign and the empire itself were finished. Within a month Napoleon would be a British captive, bound for exile on St. Helena in the South Atlantic.