Buonaparte marches upon Blucher, who is in possession of Soissons – Attacks the place without success – Battle of Craonne – Blucher retreats on Laon – Battle of Laon – Napoleon is compelled to withdraw on the 11th – He attacks Rheims, which is evacuated by the Russians – Defeat at Bar-sur-Aube of Oudinot and Gerard, who, with Macdonald, are forced to retreat towards Paris – Schwartzenberg wishes to retreat behind the Aube – but the Emperor Alexander and Lord Castlereagh opposing the measure, it is determined to proceed upon Paris – Napoleon occupies Arcis – Battle of Arcis – Napoleon is joined, in the night after the battle, by Macdonald, Oudinot, and Gerard – and retreats along the Aube.
The sword was now again brandished, not to be sheathed or reposed, until the one party or the other should be irretrievably defeated.
The situation of Buonaparte, even after the victory of Montereau, and capture of Troyes, was most discouraging. If he advanced on the grand army of the allies which he had in front, there was every likelihood that they would retire before him, wasting his force in skirmishes, without a possibility of his being able to force them to a general action; while, in the meantime, it might be reckoned for certain that Blucher, master of the Marne, would march upon Paris. On the contrary, if Napoleon moved with his chief force against Blucher, he had, in like manner, to apprehend that Schwartzenberg would resume the route upon Paris by way of the valley of the Seine. Thus, he could make no exertion upon the one side, without exposing the capital to danger on the other.
After weighing all the disadvantages on either side, Napoleon determined to turn his arms against Blucher, as most hostile to his person, most rapid in his movements, and most persevering in his purposes. He left Oudinot, Macdonald, and Gerard in front of the grand army, in hopes that, however inferior in numbers, they might be able to impose upon Schwartzenberg a belief that Napoleon was present in person, and thus either induce the Austrian to continue his retreat, or at least prevent him from resuming the offensive. For this purpose the French troops were to move on Bar-sur-Aube, and occupy, if practicable, the heights in that neighbourhood. The soldiers were also to use the cry of Vive l'Empereur, as if Napoleon had been present. It was afterwards seen, that as the maréchals did not command 40,000 men in all, including a force under Macdonald, it was impossible for them to discharge effectually the part assigned them. In the meanwhile, Napoleon himself continued his lateral march on Blucher, supposing it possible for him, as formerly, to surprise his flank, as the Prussians marched upon Paris. For this purpose he moved as speedily as possible to La Ferté-Gauchère, where he arrived 1st March; but Sacken and D'Yorck, who would have been the first victims of this manœuvre, as their divisions were on the left bank of the Marne, near to Meaux, crossed the river at La Ferté Jouarre, and formed a junction with Blucher, who now resolved to fall back on the troops of Bulow and Winzengerode. These generals were, it will be remembered, advancing from the frontiers of Belgium.
A sudden hard frost rendered the country passable, which had before been in so swampy a condition as to render marching very difficult. This was much to the advantage of the Prussians. Napoleon detached the forces under Marmont and Mortier, whom he had united with his own, to press upon and harass the retreat of the Prussian field-maréchal; while he himself, pushing on by a shorter line, possessed himself of the town of Fismes, about half way betwixt Rheims and Soissons. The occupation of this last place was now a matter of the last consequence. If Blucher should find Soissons open to him, he might cross the Marne, extricate himself from his pursuers without difficulty, and form his junction with the army of the North. But if excluded from this town and bridge, Blucher must have hazarded a battle on the most disadvantageous terms, having Mortier and Marmont on his front, Napoleon on his left flank, and in his rear, a town, with a hostile garrison and a deep river.
It was almost a chance, like that of the dice, which party possessed this important place. The Russians had taken it on 15th February;1 but, being immediately evacuated by them, it was on the 19th occupied by Mortier, and garrisoned by 500 Poles, who were imagined capable of the most determined defence. On the 2d March, however, the commandant, intimidated by the advance of Bulow's army of 30,000 men, yielded up Soissons to that general, upon a threat of an instant storm, and no quarter allowed. The Russian standards then waved on the ramparts of Soissons, and Blucher, arriving under its walls, acquired the full power of uniting himself with his rear-guard, and giving or refusing battle at his pleasure, on the very moment when Buonaparte, having turned his flank, expected to have forced on him a most disadvantageous action.
The Emperor's wrath exhaled in a bulletin against the inconceivable baseness of the commandant of Soissons, who was said to have given up so important a place when he was within hearing of the cannonade on the 2d and 3d, and must thereby have known the approach of the Emperor.2 In the heat of his wrath, he ordered Soissons to be assaulted and carried by storm at all risks; but it was defended by General Langeron with 10,000 Russians. A desperate conflict ensued, but Langeron retained possession of the town.
Abandoning this project, Napoleon crossed the Aisne at Béry-au-Bac, with the purpose of attacking the left wing of Blucher's army, which, being now concentrated, was strongly posted betwixt the village of Craonne and the town of Laon, in such a manner as to secure a retreat upon the very strong position which the latter town affords. Blucher imagined a manœuvre, designed to show Buonaparte that his favourite system of turning an enemy's flank had its risks and inconveniences. He detached ten thousand horse under Winzengerode, by a circuitous route, with orders that when the French commenced their march on Craonne, they should move round and act upon their flank and rear. But the state of the roads, and other impediments, prevented this body of cavalry from getting up in time to execute the intended manœuvre.
Meanwhile, at eleven in the morning of the 7th March, the French began their attack with the utmost bravery. Ney assaulted the position on the right flank, which was defended by a ravine, and Victor, burning to show the zeal which he had been accused of wanting, made incredible exertions in front. But the assault was met by a defence equally obstinate, and the contest became one of the most bloody and best-sustained during the war. It was four in the afternoon, and the French had not yet been able to dislodge the Russians on any point, when the latter received orders from Blucher to withdraw from the disputed ground, and unite with the Prussian army on the splendid position of Laon, which the maréchal considered as a more favourable scene of action. There were no guns lost, or prisoners made. The Russians, in despite of a general charge of the French cavalry, retreated as on the parade. As the armies, considering the absence of Winzengerode with the detachment of cavalry, and of Langeron with the garrison of Soissons, were nearly equal, the indecisive event of the battle was the more ominous. The slain and wounded were about the same number on both sides, and the French only retained as a mark of victory the possession of the field of battle.3
Napoleon himself followed the retreat of the Russians as far as an inn between Craonne and Laon, called L'Ange Gardien, where he reposed for the night. He, indeed, never more needed the assistance of a guardian angel, and his own appears to have deserted his charge. It was here that Rumigny found him when he presented the letter of Caulaincourt, praying for final instructions from the Emperor; and it was here he could only extract the ambiguous reply, that if he must submit to the bastinado, it should be only by force. At this cabaret, also, he regulated his plan for attacking the position of Blucher on the next morning; and thus ridding himself finally, if possible, of that Silesian army, which had been his object of disquietude for forty-two days, during the course of which, scarce two days had passed without their being engaged in serious conflict, either in front or rear. He received valuable information for enabling him to make the projected attack, from a retired officer, M. Bussy de Bellay, who had been his schoolfellow at Brienne, who lived in the neighbourhood, and was well acquainted with the ground, and whom he instantly rewarded with the situation of an aide-de-camp, and a large appointment. When his plan for the attack was finished, he is said to have exclaimed, "I see this war is an abyss without a bottom, but I am resolved to be the last whom it shall devour."
The town of Laon is situated upon a table-land, or eminence, flattened on the top, which rises very abruptly above a plain extending about a league in length. The face of the declivity is steep, shelving, almost precipitous, and occupied by terraces serving as vineyards. Bulow defended this town and bank. The rest of the Silesian army was placed on the plain below; the left wing, composed of Prussians, extending to the village of Athies; the right, consisting of Russians, resting on the hills between Thiers and Semonville.
Only the interval of one day elapsed between the bloody battle of Craonne and that of Laon. On the 9th, availing himself of a thick mist, Napoleon pushed his columns of attack to the very foot of the eminence on which Laon is situated, possessed himself of two of the villages, termed Semilly and Ardon, and prepared to force his way up the hill towards the town. The weather cleared, the French attack was repelled by a tremendous fire from terraces, vineyards, windmills, and every point of advantage. Two battalions of Yagers, the impetus of their attack increased by the rapidity of the descent, recovered the villages, and the attack of Laon in front seemed to be abandoned. The French, however, continued to retain possession, in that quarter, of a part of the village of Clacy. Thus stood the action on the right and centre. The French had been repulsed all along the line. On the left Maréchal Marmont had advanced upon the village of Athies, which was the key of Blucher's position in that point. It was gallantly defended by D'Yorck and Kleist, supported by Sacken and Langeron. Marmont made some progress, notwithstanding this resistance, and night found him bivouacking in front of the enemy, and in possession of part of the disputed village of Athies. But he was not destined to remain there till daybreak.
Upon the 10th, at four in the morning, just as Buonaparte, arising before daybreak, was calling for his horse, two dismounted dragoons were brought before him, with the unpleasing intelligence that the enemy had made a hourra upon Marmont, surprised him in his bivouac, and cut to pieces, taken, or dispersed his whole division, and they alone had escaped to bring the tidings. All the maréchal's guns were lost, and they believed he was himself either killed or prisoner. Officers sent to reconnoitre, brought back a confirmation of the truth of this intelligence, excepting as to the situation of the maréchal. He was on the road to Rheims, near Corbeny, endeavouring to rally the fugitives. Notwithstanding this great loss, and as if in defiance of bad fortune, Napoleon renewed the attack upon Clacy and Semilly; but all his attempts being fruitless, he was induced to relinquish the undertaking, under the excuse that the position was found impregnable. On the 11th, he withdrew from before Laon, having been foiled in all his attempts, and having lost thirty guns, and nearly 10,000 men. The allies suffered comparatively little, as they fought under cover.
Napoleon halted at Soissons, which, evacuated by Langeron when Blucher concentrated his army, was now again occupied by the French. Napoleon directed its defences to be strengthened, designing to leave Mortier to defend the place against the advance of Blucher, which, victorious as he was, might be instantly expected.
While at Soissons, Napoleon learned that Saint Priest, a French emigrant, and a general in the Russian service, had occupied Rheims, remarkable for the venerable cathedral in which the kings of France were crowned. Napoleon instantly saw that the possession of Rheims would renew the communication betwixt Schwartzenberg and Blucher, besides neutralizing the advantages which he himself expected from the possession of Soissons. He moved from Soissons to Rheims, where, after an attack which lasted till late in the night, the Russian general being wounded, his followers were discouraged, and evacuated the place. The utmost horrors might have been expected during a night attack, when one army forced another from a considerable town. But in this instance we have the satisfaction to record, that the troops on both sides behaved in a most orderly manner.4 In his account of the previous action, Napoleon threw in one of those strokes of fatality which he loved to introduce. He endeavoured to persuade the public, or perhaps he himself believed, that Saint Priest was shot by a ball from the same cannon which killed Moreau.5
During the attack upon Rheims, Marmont came up with such forces as he had been able to rally after his defeat at Athies, and contributed to the success of the assault. He was, nevertheless, received by Napoleon with bitter reproaches, felt severely by a chief, of whose honour and talents no doubt had been expressed through a long life of soldiership.
Napoleon remained at Rheims three days, to repose and recruit his shattered army, which was reinforced from every quarter where men could be collected. Janssens, a Dutch officer, displayed a particular degree of military talent in bringing a body of about 4000 men, draughted from the garrisons of the places on the Moselle, to join the army at Rheims; a movement of great difficulty, considering he had to penetrate through a country which was in a great measure possessed by the enemy's troops.6
The halt of Napoleon at Rheims was remarkable, as affording the last means of transacting business with his civil ministers. Hitherto, an auditor of the council of state had weekly brought to the Imperial headquarters the report of the ministers, and received the orders of the Emperor.7 But a variety of causes rendered this regular communication during the rest of the campaign, a matter of impossibility. At Rheims, also, Napoleon addressed to Caulaincourt, a letter, dated 17th March, by which he seems to have placed it in the power of that plenipotentiary to comply in full with the terms of the allies. But the language in which it is couched is so far from bearing the precise warrant necessary for so important a concession, that there must remain a doubt whether Caulaincourt would have felt justified in acting upon it, or whether so acting, Napoleon would have recognised his doing so, if circumstances had made it convenient for him to disown the treaty.8
While Napoleon was pursuing, fighting with, and finally defeated by Blucher, his lieutenant-generals were not more fortunate in front of the allied grand army. It will be recollected that the Maréchals Oudinot and Gerard were left at the head of 25,000 men exclusive of the separate corps under Macdonald, with orders to possess themselves of the heights of Bar-sur-Aube, and prevent Schwartzenberg from crossing that river. They made the movement in advance accordingly, and after a sharp action, which left the town in their possession, they were so nigh to the allied troops, who still held the suburbs, that a battle became unavoidable, and the maréchals had no choice save of making the attack, or of receiving it. They chose the former, and gained at first some advantages from the very audacity of their attempt; but the allies had now been long accustomed to stand their ground under greater disasters. Their numerous reserves were brought up, and their long train of artillery got into line. The French, after obtaining a temporary footing on the heights of Vernonfait, were charged and driven back in disorder. Some fine cavalry, which had been brought from the armies in Spain, was destroyed by the overpowering cannonade. The French were driven across the Aube, the town of Bar-sur-Aube was taken, and the defeated maréchals could only rally their forces at the village of Vandœuvres, about half-way between Bar and Troyes.
The defeat of Oudinot and Gerard obliged Maréchal Macdonald, who defended the line of the river above Bar, to retreat to Troyes, from his strong position at La Ferté-sur-Aube. He therefore fell back towards Vandœuvres. But though these three distinguished generals, Macdonald, Oudinot, and Gerard, had combined their talents, and united their forces, it was impossible for them to defend Troyes, and they were compelled to retreat upon the great road to Paris. Thus, the headquarters of the allied monarchs were, for the second time during this changeful war, established in the ancient capital of Champagne; and the allied grand army recovered, by the victory of Bar-sur-Aube, all the territory which they had yielded up in consequence of Buonaparte's success at Montereau. They once more threatened to descend the Seine upon Paris, being entitled to despise any opposition offered by a feeble line, which Macdonald, Oudinot, and Gerard, endeavoured to defend on the left bank.
But Schwartzenberg's confidence in his position was lowered, when he heard that Napoleon had taken Rheims; and that, on the evening of the 17th, Ney, with a large division, had occupied Chalons-sur-Marne. This intelligence made a deep impression on the Austrian council of war. Their tactics being rigidly those of the old school of war, they esteemed their army turned whenever a French division occupied such a post as interposed betwixt them and their allies. This, indeed, is in one sense true; but it is equally true, that every division so interposed is itself liable to be turned, if the hostile divisions betwixt which it is interposed take combined measures for attacking it. The catching, therefore, too prompt an alarm, or considering the consequences of such a movement as irretrievable, belongs to the pedantry of war, and not to its science.
At midnight a council was held for the purpose of determining the future motions of the allies. The generalissimo recommended a retreat behind the line of the Aube. The Emperor Alexander opposed this with great steadiness. He observed, with justice, that the protracted war was driving the country people to despair, and that the peasantry were already taking up arms, while the allies only wanted resolution, certainly neither opportunity nor numbers, to decide the affair by a single blow.
So many were the objections stated, and so difficult was it to bring the various views and interests of so many powers to coincide in the same general plan, that the Emperor informed one of his attendants, he thought the anxiety of the night must have turned half his hair grey. Lord Castlereagh was against the opinion of Schwartzenberg, the rather that he concluded that a retreat behind the Aube would be a preface to one behind the Rhine. Taking it upon him, as became the Minister of Britain at such a crisis, he announced to the allied powers, that, so soon as they should commence the proposed retreat, the subsidies of England would cease to be paid to them.9
It was, therefore, finally agreed to resume offensive operations, for which purpose they proposed to diminish the distance betwixt the allied grand army and that of Silesia, and resume such a communication with Blucher as might prevent the repetition of such disasters as those of Montmirail and Montereau. With this view it was determined to descend the Aube, unite their army at Arcis, offer Napoleon battle, should he desire to accept it, or move boldly on Paris if he should refuse the proffered action. What determined them more resolutely, from this moment, to approach the capital as soon as possible, was the intelligence which arrived at the headquarters by Messieurs de Polignac.10 These gentlemen brought an encouraging account of the progress of the Royalists in the metropolis, and of the general arrangements which were actively pursued for uniting with the interests of the Bourbons that of all others, who, from dislike to Buonaparte's person and government, or fear that the country, and they themselves, must share in his approaching ruin, were desirous to get rid of the Imperial government. Talleyrand was at the head of the confederacy, and all were resolved to embrace the first opportunity of showing themselves, which the progress of the allies should permit. This important intelligence, coming from such unquestionable authority, strengthened the allies in their resolution to march upon Paris.
In the meantime, Napoleon being at Rheims, as stated, on the 15th and 16th March, was alarmed by the news of the loss of the battle of Bar, the retreat of the three maréchals beyond the Seine, and the demonstrations of the grand army to cross that river once more. He broke up, as we have seen, from Rheims on the 17th, and sending Ney to take possession of Chalons, marched himself to Epernay, with the purpose of placing himself on the right flank, and in the rear of Schwartzenberg, in case he should advance on the road to Paris. At Epernay, he learned that the allies, alarmed by his movements, had retired to Troyes, and that they were about to retreat upon the Aube, and probably to Langres. He also learned that the maréchals, Macdonald and Oudinot, had resumed their advance so soon as their adversaries began to retreat. He hastened to form a junction with these persevering leaders, and proceeded to ascend the Aube as high as Bar, where he expected to throw himself into Schwartzenberg's rear, having no doubt that his army was retiring from the banks of the Aube.
In these calculations, accurate as far as the information permitted, Buonaparte was greatly misled. He conceived himself to be acting upon the retreat of the allies, and expected only to find a rear-guard at Arcis; he was even talking jocularly of making his father-in-law prisoner during his retreat. If, contrary to his expectation, he should find the enemy, or any considerable part of them, still upon the Aube, it was, from all he had heard, to be supposed his appearance would precipitate their retreat towards the frontier. It has also been asserted, that he expected Maréchal Macdonald to make a corresponding advance from the banks of the Seine to those of the Aube; but the orders had been received too late to admit of the necessary space being traversed so as to arrive on the morning of the day of battle.
Napoleon easily drove before him such bodies of light cavalry, and sharp-shooters, as had been left by the allies, rather for the purpose of reconnoitring than of making serious opposition. He crossed the Aube at Plancey, and moved upwards along the left bank of the river, with Ney's corps, and his whole cavalry, while the infantry of his guard advanced upon the right; his army being thus, according to the French military phrase, à cheval upon the Aube. The town of Arcis had been evacuated by the allies upon his approach, and was occupied by the French on the morning of the 20th March. That town forms the outlet of a sort of defile, where a succession of narrow bridges cross a number of drains, brooks, and streamlets, the feeders of the river Aube, and a bridge in the town crosses the river itself. On the other side of Arcis is a plain, in which some few squadrons of cavalry, resembling a reconnoitring party, were observed manœuvring.
Behind these horse, at a place called Clermont, the Prince Royal of Wirtemberg, whose name has been so often honourably mentioned, was posted with his division, while the elite of the allied army was drawn up on a chain of heights still farther in the rear, called Mesnil la Comtesse. But these forces were not apparent to the vanguard of Napoleon's army. The French cavalry had orders to attack the light troops of the allies; but these were instantly supported by whole regiments, and by cannon, so that the attack was unsuccessful; and the squadrons of the French were repulsed and driven back on Arcis at a moment, when, from the impediments in the town and its environs, the infantry could with difficulty debouche from the town to support them. Napoleon showed, as he always did in extremity, the same heroic courage which he had exhibited at Lodi and Brienne. He drew his sword, threw himself among the broken cavalry, called on them to remember their former victories, and checked the enemy by an impetuous charge, in which he and his staff-officers fought hand to hand with their opponents, so that he was in personal danger from the lance of a Cossack, the thrust of which was averted by his aide-de-camp, Girardin. His Mameluke Rustan fought stoutly by his side, and received a gratuity for his bravery. These desperate exertions afforded time for the infantry to debouche from the town. The Imperial Guards came up, and the combat waxed very warm. The superior numbers of the allies rendered them the assailants on all points. A strongly situated village in front, and somewhat to the left of Arcis, called Grand Torcy, had been occupied by the French. This place was repeatedly and desperately attacked by the allies, but the French made good their position. Arcis itself was set on fire by the shells of the assailants, and night alone separated the combatants, by inducing the allies to desist from the attack.
In the course of the night, Buonaparte was joined by Macdonald, Oudinot, and Gerard, with the forces with which they had lately held the defensive upon the Seine; and the anxious question remained, whether, thus reinforced, he should venture an action with the grand army, to which he was still much inferior in numbers. Schwartzenberg, agreeably to the last resolution of the allies, drew up on the heights of Mesnil la Comtesse, prepared to receive battle. On consideration of the superior strength of the enemy, and of the absence of some troops not yet come up, Napoleon finally determined not to accept a battle under such disadvantageous circumstances. He therefore commenced a retreat, the direction of which was doomed to prove the crisis of his fate. He retired as he had advanced, along both sides of the Aube; and though pursued and annoyed in this movement (which was necessarily executed through Arcis and all its defiles,) his rear-guard was so well conducted, that he sustained little loss. A late author,11 who has composed an excellent and scientific work on this campaign, has remarked – "In concluding the account of the two days thus spent by the contending armies in presence of each other, it is equally worthy of remark, that Buonaparte, with a force not exceeding 25,000 or 30,000 men, should have risked himself in such a position in front of 80,000 of the allies, as that the latter should have allowed him to escape them with impunity." The permitting him to retreat with so little annoyance has been censured in general by all who have written on this campaign.12
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