The Invasion of France

In the 1814 campaign military operations were entangled with diplomacy and with French domestic politics. This was the inevitable result of allied success in 1813. The treaties of alliance signed at Teplitz in September 1813 had committed the Russians, Prussians and Austrians to pushing Napoleon back across the Rhine and restoring German independence. By November 1813 this goal was achieved. The allies now had to decide whether to stick to their previous limited war aims or to increase them. If they chose to do the latter, then they needed to agree on new goals. Whatever they decided, they required a French government which would negotiate a peace settlement and then stick to it. War-weariness might well persuade Frenchmen to welcome peace in the short run but after twenty-two years of war the allies longed for lasting peace, not just a temporary armistice. Designing a settlement which would guarantee European peace and stability, satisfy the allied powers’ interests and also be acceptable to French society was bound to be hard.1

Should the allies offer France its so-called ‘natural frontiers’ – in other words the border marked out by the Rhine, the Alps and the Pyrenees and envisaged in the Teplitz treaties? Or should they seek to reduce France to its ‘historic’ borders, meaning the territory ruled by the French king in 1792? This was not the same question as whether the allies should negotiate with Napoleon or try to overthrow him, but the issues were linked. It was perhaps conceivable that Napoleon would tolerate a peace based on ‘natural borders’, but only a great optimist could believe that he would see a settlement linked to the old royal frontiers as anything other than a temporary truce. The allies knew, however, that it was neither in their power nor in their interests to impose a regime on the French. Their armies could not occupy France for ever. Sooner rather than later they needed a French regime with sufficient legitimacy to accept a peace settlement and survive in power, once initial war-weariness had faded in French society. There was plenty of room for honest disagreement among the allies about what kind of French regime would best fit this bill. The one obvious point, though, was that the more a regime was seen to be imposed by the allies, the harder its task would be to win acceptance among the French people.

These questions were complicated and without clear answers. Suspicion and arguments in the allied camp were made far worse, however, by clashes of interest over the final peace settlement for Europe as a whole. Directly or indirectly, Napoleon had ruled over most of Poland, Germany, Italy and the Low Countries. The fate of all of these territories now had to be decided, and this had enormous implications for the power, status and security of all the allied states. Above all there was Poland, or more specifically the Duchy of Warsaw. The whole Duchy was former Prussian or Austrian territory. Alexander wanted it for Russia. The balance of power in east-central Europe between the three major continental allies was widely seen as turning on this issue. Disagreements about how Poland should be partitioned had broken up the First Coalition against Revolutionary France. They were the likeliest source of disintegration for the present coalition too. Nor could the Polish issue be kept separate from the question of how to deal with Napoleon and France. Faced with Russo-Prussian solidarity, Austria looked to France as a possible ally. If too weakened or humiliated by the peace, the French could not fulfil this role. On the other hand, a France indebted to Vienna for a moderate peace settlement and ruled by Francis II’s son-in-law, Napoleon, might be a useful check to Russian power.2

Though some tensions existed between all the allied powers, the most important conflict was between Austria and Russia. One key area of rivalry was the Balkans. In 1808–12 the Russians seemed on the verge of conquering all of present-day Romania and turning Serbia into their client state, thereby increasing their prestige and leverage throughout the Balkans. Only the threat of Napoleon’s invasion had persuaded Petersburg to draw back, but no one in Vienna could be naive enough to believe that this was the end of the story. More broadly, the Austrians feared growing Russian power, of which 1812 had been a reminder. Her geographical near-invulnerability, the quality of her army and the scale of her resources all made Russia an empire to be feared.

Nevertheless, one must not exaggerate: in 1814 Austria was not yet greatly inferior to Russia in power. We are still far from the era of 1914, by which time Russia had been strengthened by huge population growth and the Austrian army weakened by the conflicts between the Habsburg Empire’s many nationalities. Even on their own in 1814 the Austrians could hope to put up a stout defence against Russia. Allied to Prussia they had every chance of defeating it. In many ways the main problem for Metternich in 1814 was Russo-Prussian solidarity, which increased Russian confidence and gave Russia a secure gateway into central Europe. The Russo-Prussian alliance threatened to isolate Austria and cut across Metternich’s desire for a Germanic bloc which would largely exclude French or Russian influence from central Europe. Within that bloc Austrian resources and Habsburg history would give Vienna a natural pre-eminence. Meanwhile Metternich envisaged that peace and equilibrium in Europe as a whole would be protected by a balance of power between France and Russia.3

Austrian perspectives had some support within the Prussian government. When the Treaty of Kalicz had been negotiated between Russia and Prussia in February 1813 there had been much tension over the fate of Prussia’s former territories in the Duchy of Warsaw. The Prussian king’s closest military adviser, Major-General Karl von dem Knesebeck, shared the Austrian high command’s fears about attempting to march on Paris and unseat Napoleon.4

Against Knesebeck stood Blücher, Gneisenau and the Army of Silesia.

Their views are sometimes belittled as stemming from nothing but desire for revenge and military glory. This is unfair. The Army of Silesia’s quartermaster-general, Baron Müffling, was a cool-headed staff officer, personally much closer to Knesebeck than to Gneisenau or Blücher. But he shared their view that lasting peace required Napoleon’s removal. He believed that if the emperor remained in power, after a short respite to rest and regroup his resources he was certain to try to overturn any peace settlement. All his veterans currently in allied captivity or in hospitals would stand ready to support him. Meanwhile, Müffling added, as Napoleon advanced over the Rhine, the Russian army would be 1,000 kilometres away and unable to come to Prussia’s assistance.5

In the end, Prussian policy depended on Frederick William III. The king shared Müffling’s views and was satisfied with the deal struck at Kalicz. Once Frederick William had gone through the agony of making the great decision to back Russia in February 1813 he was temperamentally very disinclined to review it. In any case he trusted and admired Alexander. The king was also grateful for the fact that the tsar had refused to abandon Prussia at Tilsit and had rescued his kingdom from Napoleon in 1813. Very soon the Russo-Prussian alliance was to be drawn even closer by the marriage of the king’s eldest daughter to Alexander’s younger brother and eventual heir, the Grand Duke Nicholas.6

Amidst the rivalries of the continental allies, Britain stood somewhat apart. Her role in the alliance which liberated Germany in 1813 was mostly limited to subsidizing her allies’ armies. By the winter of 1813–14, however, matters had changed. With Germany free and a final peace in the offing, Britain moved to the centre of the picture. The continental allies knew by bitter experience that if Britain and France remained at war they would end by being dragged in. Demobilizing their armies, restoring their finances and rebuilding international trade would be difficult. Britain therefore had to be brought into the peace settlement and her continental allies hoped that she would help to reconcile the French to peace by restoring many of the overseas colonies conquered between 1793 and 1814.

In 1813 Britain’s diplomatic representatives at the three allied courts had not been impressive. Lord Cathcart and Sir Charles Stewart were generals, more anxious to join in the campaign than to conduct negotiations. Meanwhile Lord Aberdeen, the 28-year-old envoy to Austria, could not even speak decent French and inevitably was eaten by Metternich. One Austrian source commented that ‘of the three only Aberdeen had any aptitude for diplomacy though he had no experience. The other two lacked either aptitude or experience.’ The allies appealed to London to send a political heavyweight who could conduct peace negotiations. In response there arrived at allied headquarters in January 1814 Viscount Castlereagh, one of the ablest foreign secretaries Britain has ever possessed.7

The basic point, however, was that Britain was by some margin the most powerful of the four allies. After its defeat in the American War of Independence, the United Kingdom had faced the combined challenge of the French, Spanish and Dutch fleets. Now in 1814 these fleets had largely been destroyed and the Royal Navy dominated the seas. Behind it stood by far the strongest merchant marine and shipbuilding industry in the world. Beyond those stood Britain’s immense financial and commercial resources. Scotland and Ireland, the historical back-doors into England, were now firmly under London’s control. To these fundamental elements in British power were added Wellington and his soldiers, the best army and the best general fielded by Britain in the last two centuries. In 1814 the allied monarchs knew that Wellington’s advance deep into southern France was keeping Marshal Soult and more than 40,000 troops tied down, far from the key theatre of operations in the north. Even more important, the logic of international relations in Europe worked in Britain’s favour. The continental allies might often resent Britain’s wealth and security, but their key interests were always more at risk from their land neighbours. They shared Britain’s commitment to a balance of power on the continent for reasons of their own security. But a continental balance of power meant that British maritime and colonial dominance could not be seriously challenged.8

This reality was reflected in the peace negotiations. Britain insisted that ‘maritime rights’ – in other words the international laws of the sea – should not be subject to negotiation. It got its way. The Russians were unhappy about this. The consul-general in London wrote that right up to the end of the war the Royal Navy was still seizing Russian ships and cargoes. Sometimes these ships did have false papers but it was in any case very difficult to prove the opposite to suspicious British officers. The Russian embassy was never informed that ships had been seized and all subsequent procedures were secret and slow. Even if the British ultimately accepted that the Russian ships were on legitimate business, the long delays caused ruinous losses. No apologies or compensation were ever offered, nor were British officers ever punished for mistaken or malicious seizure of ships. But in 1814 the Russian government had higher priorities than maritime law and could not afford to offend London.9

The most important territorial gains of the United Kingdom in 1793– 1814 – impossible without maritime supremacy – had been made from Indian princes and were therefore not part of the peace negotiations. Nor was the informal British commercial empire which was moving into the void left by the collapse of Spanish interests in South America. The colonies taken from France and her allies were subject to negotiation and London showed wisdom and moderation in returning, for example, the rich East Indies territories to the Dutch. But Britain retained Malta, the Cape and a number of islands in the Indian Ocean which strengthened her hold over the sea-lanes. Some of Britain’s war aims in Europe had already been achieved by December 1813. Spain, for example, had been liberated. The one big remaining priority was to get the French out of Belgium and to ensure that the Belgian coast was in friendly hands. Without this, wrote Castlereagh, the Royal Navy would need to remain on a permanent wartime footing. But no European power save France was opposed to this British interest, and at the very moment when Castlereagh was making his statement the Dutch revolt against Napoleon was promising to solve the Belgian problem in a manner acceptable to London. In these circumstances Britain was able to hold the balance among the allies, helping to moderate their quarrels and tilting against any of them whose power or pretensions seemed to threaten British interests.10

In 1814 most of this ‘tilting’ occurred against Russia, partly just because it was the most powerful of the continental allies and partly because Alexander’s aims and manner sometimes appeared unclear and even intimidating to British eyes. To an even greater extent than was true of Metternich, Alexander directed his country’s foreign policy. Whereas Metternich ran Austrian policy because his sovereign and indeed the Austrian elite as a whole shared his outlook and trusted him to defend their interests, Alexander controlled Russian policy because he was sovereign and autocrat. Far from expressing a consensus view of the Russian ruling elite, on some key issues the emperor was very much in a minority.

For many of Alexander’s advisers the key point was that an exhausted Russia was pouring out its wealth and soldiers on issues which appeared far removed from the empire’s own core interests. Aleksandr Chernyshev was not just very loyal but also a consummate courtier. Even he wrote to the emperor in November 1813 that ‘of all the coalition powers, Russia is the one which most needs a speedy peace. Deprived of trade for many years, it needs to restore order to its finances;…the richest Russian provinces have been devastated and require help urgently. Only the end of the war will heal these wounds.’11

Very few of Alexander’s advisers would have disagreed. Admiral Shishkov had opposed crossing the Neman into Germany. The idea of crossing the Rhine into France reduced him to near hysteria. The minister of finance, Dmitrii Gurev, issued warnings that a further year of war threatened the state with bankruptcy. Kutuzov was dead and Rumiantsev marginalized, but Jomini took up their old call, reminding the emperor that a powerful France holding the Rhine frontier and the Belgian coast was essential to Russian interests since only this could check ‘formidable British power’. Of Alexander’s senior generals, the Russian commanders in the Army of Silesia took the same line as Blücher. As a royalist émigré, Alexandre de Langeron had personal reasons for wanting to drive Napoleon off his throne but Fabian von der Osten-Sacken horrified the assembled dignitaries of Nancy, all desperate to sit on the fence, by calling on them to join him in a toast of ‘death and destruction to the tyrant who has so long been the scourge of the French nation and the plague of Europe’. On the other hand, in Alexander’s own headquarters many of his closest advisers were much more cautious and inclined towards a compromise peace.12

Karl Nesselrode dismissed the worries of his father-in-law, the minister of finance, in terms of which the emperor would certainly have approved: ‘The troops are fed and more or less clothed at the expense of the countries in which they are waging war. The conventions with Prussia and Austria are wholly to our advantage, the revenues of the Duchy of Warsaw accrue to us alone. So I don’t understand why the war should be so terribly expensive.’ On the other hand, Alexander’s chief assistant for diplomatic affairs disagreed with the emperor on the two key issues which were of overriding importance not just for the monarch but also for Russia’s relations with its allies. These were the fate of Poland and the question of whether to march on Paris and seek to overthrow Napoleon. Though he knew that his advice would be unwelcome, Nesselrode showed moral courage by continuing to defend what he considered to be the state’s true interests.13

Nesselrode had submitted his key memorandum on Polish affairs to Alexander back in January 1813. In it he argued that appeasing the Poles by establishing an autonomous Polish kingdom would not add substantially to Russia’s strength and would have fatal political consequences. It would both alienate Vienna and infuriate patriotic Russians, who believed that recent Polish behaviour towards Russia made them unworthy of any concessions. In the longer term, it would be immensely difficult for the autocratic tsar to function simultaneously as constitutional king of Poland. Since nothing would ever wean Polish elites from hopes of independence, the final result of incorporating the Duchy of Warsaw into the empire might be the loss of the Polish-dominated provinces which currently were part of the empire’s western borderlands.14

Nesselrode’s views had not changed by the winter of 1813. Meanwhile he was also submitting to Alexander unpalatable advice about negotiations with Napoleon. Nesselrode wrote that the allies had fulfilled their war aims. The possibility now existed of a peace which ‘will enable Your Majesty to labour in security for the good of his subjects and to heal the deep wounds caused by the war, while establishing the western borders of his empire to his advantage and being able to exert on other governments a benevolent and equitable influence, rooted in the memory of the services which You have rendered to them’. In comparison to this certainty, ‘it is impossible to calculate the chances offered by a prolonged war fought for unclear and excessive goals’.15

Nesselrode’s views weakened Alexander’s trust in him. Countess Nesselrode wrote to her husband that he was far too close to Metternich both personally and in his opinions for his own good. Nesselrode’s own private letters reveal a barely suppressed frustration with the emperor. This frustration was shared by many key figures in the allied leadership in early 1814. To them Alexander appeared not just overbearing but also at times driven by purely personal and petty motives. In one of his first reports to the British prime minister from allied headquarters, Lord Castlereagh wrote that ‘I think our greatest danger at present is from the chevalresque tone in which the Emperor Alexander is disposed to push the war. He has a personal feeling about Paris, distinct from all political or military combinations. He seems to seek for the occasion of entering with his magnificent guards the enemy’s capital, probably to display, in his clemency and forbearance, a contrast’ to the destruction of Moscow.16

Castlereagh’s comment showed insight. In 1814 Alexander did sometimes allow himself to be swayed by personal and even petty considerations which had little to do with Russian interests. He saw his role of victor and peace-giver as a personal apotheosis. He also remembered that in 1812 he had stood alone against a seemingly invincible enemy whose huge army had included strong Austrian and Prussian contingents. In the following year he had risked much and shown great skill and patience in dragging first Prussia and then Austria into his victorious coalition. By February 1814 he felt that the reward for his efforts was an undeserved level of distrust and criticism from not just his allies but also many of his advisers. A combination of exaltation and bruised feelings is never easy to deal with. To complicate matters, Alexander’s views on international relations were never rooted purely in realpolitik. His long-held idealism about international cooperation was now being influenced by his new-found Christian beliefs in ways which the down-to-earth pragmatists who ran the foreign policies of the other powers found disconcerting.17

The key point, however, is not just to understand Alexander’s emotions but also to recognize that the core of his policy was usually rational and also in many instances more correct than his critics allowed. Reconciling Polish aspirations with Russian security was a hugely important matter for his empire. Alexander’s attempt to do this was generous and imaginative. In the end it failed but so have all subsequent Russian efforts to square this circle. Moreover, though it caused uncertainty and suspicion, the emperor’s determination not to reveal his cards and to postpone discussion of Polish affairs until after the end of the war was wise. Any attempt to do otherwise would surely have broken up the coalition.

Of course Alexander understood the argument of some of his advisers that French power was essential to keep British ambitions in check. To some extent this had been part of the rationale underlying Russian policy at Tilsit and in the following years. Rumiantsev had wished to use Napoleon against Britain just as Metternich hoped to use him to balance Russia. But the basic point was that France was too powerful and Napoleon far too ambitious for either the Austrians or Russians to use safely. Attempts to do so merely condemned Europe to more years of conflict and instability. Alexander’s insight that Napoleon would never honour any settlement acceptable to the allies, and that lasting peace could only be made in Paris, was correct. More than any other individual, he was responsible for Napoleon’s overthrow. If leadership of the coalition had rested with Metternich and Schwarzenberg, there is every likelihood that the 1814 campaign would have ended with Napoleon on his throne, the allies behind the Rhine, and Europe condemned to unending conflict and chaos. On the day that Paris finally capitulated, Castlereagh’s half-brother, Sir Charles Stewart, wrote that ‘it would be injustice’ not to recognize Alexander’s achievement as the man who had led the allies to victory and thereby ‘richly deserved the appellation of the liberator of mankind’.18

In early November 1813, however, when the allies reached Frankfurt and encamped on the Rhine, Paris still seemed far away. In Frankfurt, the allied leaders agreed on a combined political and military strategy. They would offer Napoleon peace on very moderate terms. As even Metternich admitted to one of his Austrian subordinates, there was every probability that the emperor would reject these terms. But the offer of peace would clarify allied aims and allow them to expose Napoleon’s intransigence to the French people. Throughout the 1814 campaign a key allied tactic was to stress that they were fighting Napoleon’s insatiable ambitions, not France and her legitimate interests and pride. They were terrified that Napoleon might succeed in mobilizing ‘the nation in arms’ against their invasion of France, just as his republican predecessors had done in 1792–4. On the contrary, if they could split Napoleon from the French nation, this might either increase the pressure on him to make peace or encourage the emergence of an alternative French regime with which the allies could negotiate.19

The biggest source of allied leverage would be military. Having seen how Napoleon had used the winter of 1812–13 to recover from disaster in Russia and create a new army, the allies were determined not to give him a second such opportunity. They therefore committed themselves to a full-scale winter invasion of France. If any of the allied leaders had doubts about this commitment, they were quickly dispelled by news from Paris that on 15 November Napoleon had summoned a further 300,000 men to the colours, on top of the 280,000 conscripts whose recruitment had already been announced in the autumn of 1813. The allied response to this was a ringing manifesto aimed at the French people. It stated that

the French government has just ordered a new levy of 300,000 conscripts. The justifications set out in the new law are a provocation against the allied powers…The allied powers are not making war against France…but against the domination which the Emperor Napoleon has for too long exercised beyond the borders of his empire, to the misfortune of both Europe and France…The allied sovereigns desire that France should be strong, great and happy because a strong and great France is one of the fundamental bases of the whole order of the world (édifice sociale)…But the allied powers themselves want to live in freedom, happiness and tranquillity. They want a state of peace which through a wise re-distribution of power and a just equilibrium will preserve their peoples henceforth from the calamities beyond number which have weighed on Europe for twenty years.20

The allied peace terms were conveyed to Napoleon by the Count de Saint-Aignan, a French diplomat and Caulaincourt’s brother-in-law, whom they had captured during the pursuit of the French army after the battle of Leipzig. On 29 October Metternich and Alexander had agreed these terms. Now on 10 November Saint-Aignan wrote them down in the presence of Metternich himself, Nesselrode and Lord Aberdeen. France was offered its ‘natural frontiers’, in other words the Rhine, the Alps and the Pyrenees. This would have preserved its hold on Antwerp and the Belgian coast, in other words precisely the territory which Britain was most intent on denying her. She must renounce all her sovereign rights beyond these borders, though explicitly not the influence exercised by any great power on weaker neighbours. Although Napoleon must cease to be King of Italy, the allied offer did not totally exclude the possibility that the current viceroy, Eugène de Beauharnais, might replace him. It also, even more amazingly, included the promise that Britain would make great sacrifices for the sake of peace, which implied the return of many French colonies, and recognized the principle of ‘liberty of trade and navigation’. Though in itself vague, this suggested that the peace conference would discuss the whole issue of ‘maritime rights’, which was anathema to the British government.21

Even Metternich might have recoiled had Napoleon instantly agreed these terms, which put strong constraints on Austrian influence in Italy. Neither Russia nor Britain would actually have signed a peace treaty based on these conditions. Nevertheless, if Alexander had agreed to these terms being offered that was no doubt in part because, like Metternich, he expected that Napoleon would reject them. Ever since the summer of 1812 Alexander had believed deep in his heart that a stable peace could only be signed in Paris and, if possible, with a French ruler other than Napoleon. To put this forward as a war aim would have horrified his allies, however, and Alexander was very careful to keep his opinions to himself. Even in November 1813, to speak of marching on Paris and toppling Napoleon was premature and dangerous, and most of all when in earshot of Metternich. For Alexander, the key point was that military operations were to continue in full vigour. He had always believed that in the end it was the fortunes of war which both would and should determine the final peace settlement. As for Aberdeen, no doubt he feared to stand out alone against the allied consensus. He was also, however, a babe-in-arms when faced with diplomats of the power and subtlety of Metternich or Alexander.22

The allies in fact quickly began to water down their offer. The manifesto issued to the French people on 1 December promised not France’s natural frontiers but ‘an extent of territory greater than France had ever known under its kings, because a courageous nation is not demoted in status simply because it has suffered defeats in a stubborn and bloody war, in which it has fought with its customary boldness’. In part this shift reflected London’s horror at what Aberdeen had agreed. In addition, however, Alexander’s basic belief that military and political events on the ground would determine the peace terms was proving true.23

As the allied armies approached the Dutch border, revolt broke out in the Netherlands. Events followed a pattern very similar to the insurrection in Hamburg and northern Germany in the spring of 1813. Like the citizens of Hamburg, the Dutch had been ruined by Napoleon’s economic policies and longed for liberation. The advance guard of Winzengerode’s Army Corps under Alexander Benckendorff raced across the Netherlands to support the revolt and secure Amsterdam. His infantry – the 2nd Jaegers and the Tula Regiment – covered 60 kilometres in less than thirty-six hours. Benckendorff’s detachment also included a regiment of Bashkirs, exotic and improbable liberators of bourgeois Holland. Benckendorff’s tiny force of fewer than 2,000 men then led the defence of Breda against a French counter-offensive. The earliest French history of the campaign paid tribute to Alexander Benckendorff, saying that he showed courage and initiative even in attempting the defence, let alone in pulling it off.24

Unlike in the previous year at Hamburg, the allies now had large masses of regular troops with which to back up their Cossacks and sustain the revolt. Bülow’s Prussian corps moved into the Netherlands and within weeks had cleared most of the Low Countries. Quite apart from its political impact, the conquest of the Low Countries had important military consequences for the invasion of France. It opened up a possible supply line through rich and untouched country to the coast which allied armies operating in the Paris region could use. It also convinced Napoleon that the allied offensive in the winter of 1813–14 would come in the Low Countries. As a result he moved the best of his meagre reserves northwards.25

Meanwhile the allied leaders were planning an invasion over the Rhine but well to the south. Blücher and Gneisenau argued for an immediate attack while Napoleon’s army was still small and disorganized. Prussian historians subsequently supported this strategy. But the allied armies were also exhausted, hungry and diminished by the autumn campaign. They too needed time to rest and reorganize themselves, and to establish military roads, magazines and hospitals in their rear. During the seven weeks they rested on the Rhine, the allies in fact drew in more and better reinforcements than Napoleon. When they moved forward at the end of the year, eastern France fell to them easily and they still far outnumbered Napoleon’s forces. If the campaign later became more difficult, that had little to do with numbers: it was due to poor leadership and to the way in which political considerations were allowed to sabotage military operations.26

On 9 November Barclay de Tolly submitted his report to the emperor on the state of the Russian army at the close of the autumn campaign. He reckoned that ‘for all our great victories, the present campaign has cost us…half our army’. In some units a much higher proportion of men were no longer in the ranks. ‘Count Wittgenstein’s cavalry does not have even one-quarter of the strength with which it left Silesia’ in late August. Of the five front-line Army Corps only two were still fully viable and ‘look like regular soldiers’. These two were the Grand Duke Constantine’s Guards and Grenadiers of the Reserve Army Corps and Winzengerode’s Army Corps in the Army of the North, ‘which have seen less combat and have suffered less than the others’. In many units of the other three Army Corps (Wittgenstein, Langeron and Sacken) ‘total disorganization’ threatened unless action was taken quickly. ‘The soldiers are suffering from a great shortage of ammunition, and an even greater lack of boots, shirts and tunics.’ In some regiments not more than one hundred men were still in the ranks. Casualties among officers in the autumn campaign had been high and ‘the shortage of officers is the reason why even these small remnants cannot be restored to proper order’. Many other sources, including regimental accounts and Blücher’s reports to Alexander, confirm the picture drawn by Barclay and stress the army’s urgent need for a pause to fill up its ranks, rest its troops, and restock with ammunition, food and equipment.27

During the seven weeks that the Russian army remained on the Rhine the situation was transformed. Stragglers and men from hospital rejoined their regiments. Units detached in the rear during the autumn campaign were brought forward. Prince Aleksei Shcherbatov’s corps, for example, arrived from Berlin to reinforce Sacken. Above all, however, a further wave of reinforcements arrived from Lobanov-Rostovsky’s Reserve Army. As a result, as had happened during the summer truce in 1813, the Russian army entered the 1814 campaign refreshed and at full strength. During the seven weeks on the Rhine 25,000 reinforcements arrived for Langeron and Sacken, and 19,000 for Wittgenstein and the Grand Duke Constantine from Lobanov. In all, 63 reserve squadrons reinforced the army’s regular cavalry regiments, in other words more than 12,000 men, and there were more on their way. Langeron and Sacken had arrived on the Rhine with fewer than 30,000 men. By the beginning of the 1814 campaign they had 60,000.28

The reinforcements were generally in good order and of high quality. As usual, the cavalry were best. General Nikolai Preradovich inspected the reserve squadron which arrived to reinforce the Chevaliers Gardes on 18 November and reported that ‘I found it to be in perfect order: the men are well turned out and the horses in good form’. Peter Wittgenstein also reported that the reserve units reaching his Army Corps were in excellent condition. Completely unlike the situation with Lobanov’s first wave of reinforcements in the spring of 1813, on this occasion the units arrived at full strength, having shed very few sick or stragglers. Of course, there was a big difference between marching through a German autumn and a Belorussian winter, but the contrast also reflected the fact that Kankrin’s management of the military roads, hospitals and magazines in the army’s rear was working well.29

In one sense the movement of reinforcements had been almost too successful. The reserve companies had marched with only three-quarters of the men supplied with muskets, as in the spring. Since very few men dropped out, some soldiers in Sacken’s Army Corps actually only received their muskets when large supplies were captured from the French in early January 1814. Equipment was also a problem. Alexander became almost hysterical when his beloved Guardsmen turned up with jaeger regiments’ cross-belts and pouches. Everyone denounced the wretched state of the recruits’ uniforms, which by now were often in tatters. In 1814 many line regiments presented a strange appearance, in some cases being dressed in captured French clothing. Sometimes new uniforms had actually been ordered for them in Germany, Poland and Bohemia but the speed of the army’s advance meant that these were trailing along well in the rear. The plan had been that the officers who had led Lobanov’s units to the Field Army should return to Poland to continue the training of new recruits. In fact, however, the line units were now so short of officers that some of Lobanov’s cadre had to stay behind on the Rhine and join the 1814 campaign.30

Meanwhile the Prussians and Austrians were also resting and reinforcing their troops. Almost as important, the allies were mobilizing the resources of conquered Germany to sustain their new campaign against Napoleon. Responsibility for this was given to the so-called Central Administration, headed by Baron vom Stein and established right back in March 1813 to run territories conquered by the allies. Stein initially saw the Central Administration as a means not just of mobilizing German resources for the allied cause but also of laying the foundations for a post-war united German polity, in which the sovereignty of the ruling princes would be circumscribed by federal institutions and by elected assemblies. This plan was unacceptable both to Metternich and to the monarchs of the former Confederation of the Rhine, who united to undermine it. Historians have concentrated on this battle over politics, in which Alexander made no attempt to challenge Metternich.

The price paid by the princes to preserve their sovereignty was generous support for the allied war effort. On this point Metternich was just as firm as Stein. In their treaties with the allies, the princes pledged themselves to provide as many troops of the line as they had to Napoleon and then an equal number of Landwehr. They also contributed one year’s gross state revenue, though not of course all at once and in cash. In the end the Bavarian and Württemberg corps fought in Schwarzenberg’s army and five other German corps were also created. Some of these corps took over the task of blockading French fortresses and guarding allied bases and lines of communication. This freed large numbers of front-line Russian and Prussian troops to march into the Paris region and join the fight against Napoleon in February and March 1814. Without these reinforcements, the allied campaign would almost certainly have failed.31

For many of the allied leaders and generals the idea of marching on Paris and overthrowing Napoleon seemed very risky. For many centuries France had been Europe’s most powerful country. No foreign army had taken Paris since 1415. As Kutuzov recalled in November 1812, a century before at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession France had faced most of Europe, whose armies had been led by two of the greatest generals in history, Prince Eugène of Savoy and the Duke of Marlborough. After six years of lost battles total defeat loomed, yet still the country had summoned up the resources to defeat the invasion and hold Europe at bay. France had done the same in 1792–4, though the seemingly chaotic republican regime had confronted not just all Europe but also civil war. If the allied invasion ignited French nationalism and mass resistance, no armies would be large enough to hold down so big a country and population. In addition, France’s eastern frontier was protected by line after line of rivers – not only the Rhine but the Moselle, the Meuse and the Marne – and the Vosges mountains. To these natural defences were added the densest and most expensive chain of fortresses anywhere in the world, designed to block, divert and harass any invader seeking to use the highroads which led from the eastern borders into the French heartland. On top of all of this, the allies were attempting to invade in winter.32

A winter campaign was vital if Napoleon’s mobilization of men and resources was to be pre-empted. It ensured that the emperor would not yet have enough trained men both to garrison his fortresses and put a large army in the field. On the other hand it had serious implications as regards the allied army’s supply, movements and impact on the civilian population. By far the bulkiest item in any army’s supplies was forage for its horses. No army could carry more than a fraction of this forage in its wagons. In winter there would be no grass in the fields. Most forage would therefore have to be requisitioned from local stores. So would much of the soldiers’ food. The bigger the baggage trains, the more ponderous would be the army’s movements, especially in winter when many side roads would be impassable. Against Napoleon, lack of mobility could prove fatal.

Relying on local supplies would only work well, however, if the local authorities aided requisitioning and the population did not resist. So long as the allies were on the move, relatively dispersed, and seemed likely to win, local cooperation was likely. Once the armies needed to concentrate in order to fight, problems would multiply, especially if they remained static and if Napoleon appeared to gain the upper hand. Nothing was more likely to incite popular resistance and help Napoleon than a vast enemy army living off the land, especially as hunger spread amongst its ranks and discipline declined. At this point the allied leaders’ appeals to their soldiers for good behaviour and Christian forbearance were likely to fall on deaf ears. A vicious circle of civilian resistance and military brutality could easily be the result, with ever larger detachments forced to travel ever further in pursuit of hidden supplies. Barclay de Tolly predicted many of these problems but they were in fact self-evident for any half-literate general.33

In order to minimize some of these problems and in particular to outflank the French belt of fortresses the allies decided that their main thrust should be through Switzerland. From there they would strike north-westwards to the plateau of Langres. Once established at Langres they would decide whether the time was ripe to advance on Paris. Alexander set out all the advantages of this plan in a letter to Bernadotte of 10 November. In this letter he claimed that he had proposed the plan to the Austrians and Prussians, and they had accepted his idea. Subsequently, however, the emperor changed his mind and argued that the allies should respect Swiss neutrality. It seems that he did so because he was appealed to by Jomini and by his former tutor, Cesare de la Harpe, both of whom were Swiss citizens. The Austrians seemed prepared to give way but then invaded Switzerland anyway, citing support for their action from Swiss military and political leaders. Alexander was furious at being hoodwinked and then became even more annoyed when the Austrians began to intervene in Swiss domestic politics on the conservative side. In fact, it was he who was mostly in the wrong. Since the Swiss government had allowed France to recruit and move troops on its territory its neutrality was a sham. Perhaps, as the best Prussian historian of the campaign argues, the allied plan was in any case flawed, but once it had been agreed the Austrians had every reason to oppose changing it. Above all, Swiss domestic matters were of no importance to Russia and the emperor was allowing purely personal considerations to interfere with strategy and damage allied unity.34

In the end not only the Austrians but also the Russian Guards crossed the Rhine at Basle and marched through part of Switzerland. Their passage of the great river was delayed until 1 January by the Russian calendar, so that it could fall on the anniversary of the day one year before when the Russian army had crossed the Neman and begun its campaign to liberate Europe. For some foreign observers this was yet another example of Alexander’s interference in military operations for petty, personal reasons, though in fact the delay did no harm.

Others who watched the parade as the Russian Guards crossed the Rhine had more serious thoughts. Sir Charles Stewart wrote that

it is impossible by any description to give an exaggerated idea of the perfect state of these troops; their appearance and equipment were admirable, and when one considered what they had endured, and contemplated the Russians, some of whom had emerged from Tartary bordering the Chinese empire, traversed their own regions and marched, in a few short months, from Moscow across the Rhine, one was lost in wonder, and inspired with a political awe of that colossal power. The condition in which the Russian cavalry appeared, reflected the highest reputation on this branch of their service; and their artillery was admirable.

But Stewart combined admiration with alarm, in a statement which says much about the allied coalition. ‘I could not help, on seeing these Russian guards on that day, recurring to serious impressions with regards to this overgrown empire…the whole system of European politics ought, as its leading principle and feature, to maintain, as an axiom, the necessity of setting bounds to this formidable and encroaching power.’35

From Basle the allied army headed for Langres. Lord Burghersh, the British military representative at Schwarzenberg’s headquarters, was not impressed by the field-marshal’s leadership.

Nothing could more singularly mark the caution which was observed on the invasion of France, than the movements of the allied armies at this moment. The object of the allies was to establish themselves at Langres, a distance, by the direct road, of five days’ march from Basle. At the end of December not a single French soldier could have opposed their advance in this direction; yet complicated marches, turning the flanks of positions, inch by inch overcoming of obstacles of rivers and chains of hills, all these scientific manoeuvres were resorted to; so that, instead of being in possession of the place on the 26th or 27th of December, it was not occupied till the 17th of January.36

Pavel Pushchin of the Semenovskys wrote in his diary during the march to Langres that the roads were awful, the weather atrocious and the local French population very poor. Since France had always been held up to them as the pinnacle of European civilization, many other Russian officers were also very surprised by the poverty they encountered. Their diaries and memoirs offer a strong contrast between French poverty and the prosperity they had so admired in Saxony and Silesia. Initially the French population appeared cowed and apathetic, showing no enthusiasm either to defend Napoleon or to support the Bourbons. Inevitably the huge invading army caused destruction and looting. An officer of the Guards Dragoons recalls that his men had an unerring instinct when it came to finding the hidden treasures of the chateau in which they were quartered. In the end the regiment’s colonel succeeded in tracking down most of the loot and restoring it to its owners. Where the Guards cavalry led, Cossacks were hardly likely to be reticent and most of their officers had fewer scruples than a colonel of the Guards. Very soon after crossing into France Alexander was writing to Platov to complain that even some Cossack generals and colonels were plundering French homes and farms. For Alexander this was not just inherently shameful but also dangerous, since it risked provoking the people’s war which the allies were desperate to avoid.37

While Schwarzenberg’s large army was advancing almost unopposed to Langres, the much smaller Army of Silesia was embarking on a more dangerous march across the Middle Rhine and through the main belt of French fortresses and rivers. Alexander’s instructions to Blücher of 26 December ordered him to cross the Rhine and advance to link up with the main army but left up to him his precise line of advance. The one point on which he insisted was that ‘the key issue is to maintain the link between the two armies so that they are always in a position to unite for a battle’. Blücher was forced to leave almost all of Langeron’s Army Corps to blockade the great fortress of Mainz and all of Yorck’s Army Corps to watch the fortresses of Metz, Thionville and Luxemburg. Pressing forward just with Sacken’s Army Corps and a small detachment led by Lieutenant-General Zakhar Olsufev, Blücher had barely 27,000 men under his command. The field-marshal was never averse to risk but his position was greatly helped by the fact that his Cossacks had captured key enemy dispatches and he was well informed about French numbers and deployment. With Napoleon in Paris mobilizing new troops and much of the Field Army’s elite reserves deployed towards the Low Countries, Blücher knew that he was opposed by an exhausted and thinly spread enemy screen, whose total disposable numbers barely exceeded his own and whose forces were split up into detachments commanded by no fewer than three marshals. This emboldened him to push the French back over the Moselle, the Meuse and the Aisne before heading south-westwards to link up with Schwarzenberg.38

By the end of January 1814 the allies had conquered a huge swath of eastern France, thereby denying its manpower, taxes and food supplies to Napoleon. This was a big additional blow to Napoleon’s war machine at a time when his attempts to mobilize French resources were already facing unprecedented difficulties and opposition. The formidable system of conscription, at its most effective in the period 1810–13, was at last beginning to run down in the face of Napoleon’s insatiable demands. Most of the conscripts summoned to the depots in November 1813 did not turn up, and could not have been armed, equipped or officered even had they done so. Napoleon had not expected the allies to invade in winter and their offensive threw his plans to levy a new Grande Arméeinto disarray. In addition, Alexander rightly insisted that the large French forces besieged in Dresden, Danzig, Modlin and the other fortresses in central Europe must become prisoners of war when in due course each of these towns surrendered in the winter of 1813–14. He refused to ratify terms of surrender which would have allowed them to return to France, where some of them would undoubtedly have ended up training and forming a cadre for Napoleon’s recruits. By the end of January 1814 Napoleon’s position was looking increasingly desperate. Alexander’s strategy of allowing military operations to determine the limits of the final peace settlement seemed on the point of achieving the result he desired – in other words Napoleon’s defeat and overthrow.39 The first major battle on French soil occurred at the end of January. Napoleon had left Paris for his headquarters at Châlons on 25 January.

From there he marched south-eastwards, hoping to catch and destroy Blücher’s force before it could link up with Schwarzenberg. Fortunately for Blücher, the Russian cavalry captured a staff officer with Napoleon’s plans. Also lucky was the fact that Peter Pahlen and part of the main army’s cavalry was nearby. Pahlen delayed the advancing French and covered the march of Blücher’s troops towards Brienne, where they arrived after midday on 29 January.

Late on that winter afternoon Napoleon’s infantry attacked Brienne in three columns. Blücher’s headquarters was in the chateau of Brienne, from which he had an excellent view of the advancing enemy. He immediately spotted that the French left-hand column was vulnerable to a cavalry attack and ordered Ilarion Vasilchikov to charge into the enemy flank and rear, which brought the French infantry to a halt. Later that evening, however, on the other allied flank, French infantry burst into Brienne in the darkness past Olsufev’s small corps. Blücher and Sacken only just escaped capture and one of the latter’s key staff officers was killed. Once the initial surprise had passed, the Russian troops rallied and Blücher retreated to link up with the main army on the heights of Trannes just a few kilometres south of Brienne. But Sacken was furious with Olsufev, whom he blamed for the whole episode.40

Napoleon followed Blücher and established his headquarters in the village of La Rothière, just north of the heights at Trannes. For two days the armies watched each other without moving. By midday on 1 February Napoleon believed that the allies were aiming to move around his western flank and ordered his reserves away from La Rothière to watch them. Soon afterwards, however, it became clear that Blücher was on the point of attacking the French line. Napoleon had fewer than 50,000 men to cover a front of 9.5 kilometres, which was too few. His right flank rested on the river Aube at the village of Dienville. The village of La Rothière was in the centre of his line, which stretched out to La Giberie on his left. Blücher commanded Sacken’s and Olsufev’s troops from the Army of Silesia, which stood in his centre opposite La Rothière.

On their left were Gyulai’s Austrian Army Corps, which he ordered to attack Dienville. On the right was the Württemberg Army Corps under their crown prince, whose task it was to assault La Giberie. On their own these troops barely outnumbered the French but the allies had more than double their number available within range of the battlefield.

Gyulai’s attack on the strong French position at Dienville failed. The crown prince of Württemberg also had great difficulties deploying enough troops in the narrow defiles and swampy terrain around La Giberie to push back the French defenders. In the end he was rescued by Wrede’s Bavarian corps which came up behind the enemy left flank and forced Marshal Marmont to retreat. Schwarzenberg had not ordered Wrede to join the battle but the Bavarian commander had marched to the sound of the guns on his own initiative.

By far the fiercest fighting occurred in and around La Rothière, however. Three-quarters of all allied casualties occurred here. Sacken’s infantry assaulted La Rothière in two columns: Johann Lieven attacked from the front down the road and Aleksei Shcherbatov moved forward a few hundred metres to the east. This was the first time that the Army of Silesia had fought under Alexander’s eye and Sacken was determined to impress. The Prussian official history writes that ‘Lieven’s column attacked the village with their bands playing and the soldiers singing’. With a snow storm blowing into their backs, the Russian infantry stormed into the village with their bayonets, without pausing to fire. Major-General Nikitin, the commander of Sacken’s artillery, was unable to drag all of his guns forward to support the attack because of the heavy mud. So he left thirty-six guns behind and double-harnessed the rest. Between them Lieven and Shcherbatov cleared La Rothière after bitter fighting, only then to face a ferocious counter-attack in the early evening from Napoleon’s Guards. In this fighting both Marshal Oudinot and Lieven were wounded. In the end, the issue was decided by the Russian reserves, in this case the 2nd Grenadier Division, which came up to support Sacken and drove the enemy out of La Rothière once and for all. The French lost 73 guns and 5,000 men, the allies barely fewer. But the main element in the allied victory was moral. In the first battle of the campaign, Napoleon had been defeated on French soil. His troops’ morale slumped. In the following days many French soldiers deserted and set off for their homes.41

Sacken’s report on the battle concluded with a courtier’s flourish: ‘On this memorable and triumphant day Napoleon ceased to be the enemy of mankind and Alexander can say, I will grant peace to the world.’ Language like this was dangerously premature. Napoleon was not dead yet and the Army of Silesia was to be punished for its overconfidence in just a few days’ time. For Sacken himself, however, the battle had been a triumph. For his victories in 1813 he had been promoted to full general and awarded a string of decorations. Now Alexander granted him the very coveted Order of St Andrew and made him a present of 50,000 rubles. Probably most important for Sacken, however, was the emperor’s remark to him on the day after the battle: ‘You have conquered not only your foreign but also your domestic enemies.’ The old battle with Bennigsen dating back to 1807 which had embittered Sacken and threatened his career was now decided in his favour. His great enemy would end his life as a general and a count. Sacken would race past him, both a field-marshal and a prince.42

The day after the battle the allied leaders held a conference in the chateau of Brienne to decide future strategy. When the time to begin the meeting arrived, apparently Blücher was nowhere to be found and the various dignitaries scattered to track him down. It was Alexander who discovered him, deep in the wine cellars, plucking the best bottles from the racks. The conference decided that the main army and the Army of Silesia must split up, allegedly because it was impossible to feed them if they remained together. Schwarzenberg would advance on Paris from the south along the river Seine. Blücher would approach from the west along the Marne.43 In many ways this was to revert to the model of 1813 and to face the same dangers. Napoleon would be operating on interior lines between the two allied armies. By now he would be well attuned to Schwarzenberg’s caution and slowness, and to Blücher’s boldness and willingness to run risks. In the autumn of 1813 Napoleon had missed his chance to exploit this weakness. Now it had returned in even more clear-cut form. Unlike in the autumn, Napoleon would not have to exhaust himself by marching great distances to strike one or other allied army. Since all military operations were taking place in a small area, he could hope to defeat one enemy army and race back to face the other in a handful of days. Moving in his own country, he could mobilize local knowledge, transport and manpower to use side roads, tap food supplies and be forewarned about enemy actions. He also controlled most of the key river crossings. In addition, in February 1814 Blücher was even more inclined to take risks than before since he shared the widespread view that Napoleon’s demise was imminent. By 7 February he and Alexander were discussing how to quarter the troops when they reached Paris.44

Meanwhile Schwarzenberg was even more cautious than in the previous year. The great numerical superiority of the allies seems to have merely increased his worries about the difficulties of commanding and feeding so vast an army. He was intensely concerned about the security of his long line of communications stretching back to Basle and across the Rhine. He exaggerated the size of Napoleon’s army and, still more, of the force which Marshal Augereau was trying to form in Lyons, believing that Augereau might strike into the allied rear in Switzerland. In these circumstances Schwarzenberg was very opposed to any further move forwards. As he wrote to his wife on 26 January, ‘any advance on Paris is in the highest degree contrary to military science’.45

To do the commander-in-chief justice he was not alone among the allied generals in this view. Knesebeck argued that it would be very difficult to feed the army in the region around Troyes through which they would have to approach Paris. The various allied corps could only move up and down the north–south highways leading to the capital since the side roads were almost impassable at this time of year. Lateral movements and mutual support among the allied corps would therefore be slow at best. Meanwhile Napoleon could feed himself from the fertile areas west of Paris and could use interior lines and better lateral roads which he controlled to concentrate and strike against the lumbering allied columns. If Napoleon’s throne was threatened, no doubt he would fight to the death. What evidence was there that the French nation would desert him? Ultimately, to advance on Paris was to gamble on French politics. Might this not prove as deceptive as Napoleon’s gamble in 1812 that occupying Moscow would lead to peace?46

Schwarzenberg’s views and plans were strongly influenced by political considerations. In his view, the advance to Langres had been a means to exert additional leverage on Napoleon and force him to make peace on terms acceptable to the allies. Even now, after all these years, Schwarzenberg had not really grasped Napoleon’s mentality or his way of war. Metternich’s influence on the commander-in-chief was also very important. On a number of occasions in January 1814 he advised Schwarzenberg to delay operations and allow time for peace negotiations. By appointing Caulaincourt as minister of foreign affairs and seemingly accepting the allied peace terms conveyed by Saint-Aignan, Napoleon appeared to be open to compromise. With a peace congress finally about to commence at Châtillon on 3 February, Schwarzenberg, Metternich and Francis II were less inclined than ever to push forward in the days immediately following La Rothière or to let military operations determine policy and define the peace settlement. Because the commander-in-chief was an Austrian, Habsburg political perspectives could quietly derail allied military strategy.47

Meanwhile Alexander did his best to undermine Metternich’s diplomatic strategy at Châtillon. When the congress began its deliberations on 5 February the Russian delegate, Count Razumovsky, announced that he had not yet received his instructions. Russian delaying tactics could not be hidden, however, unlike Metternich’s advice to Schwarzenberg, and quickly annoyed their allies. By now the allies had toughened considerably the peace terms on offer. At Frankfurt they had proposed France’s natural frontiers. At Châtillon they offered the ‘historic’ frontiers of 1792. Metternich pinned Alexander down by presenting the allies with a memorandum which forced them to decide whether or not to make peace with Napoleon if he accepted these terms. It also required them to decide, if they rejected Napoleon, whether they should commit themselves to the Bourbons or decide on some way by which the French might choose an alternative ruler.48

Faced with these questions, Alexander found himself without support. He believed that if Napoleon accepted the allied terms, he would simply regard the peace as a temporary truce and would start a new war at the first suitable opportunity. His military genius and his aura added tens of thousands of invisible soldiers to any army he commanded. So long as he sat on France’s throne, many of his former allies beyond France’s borders would never believe that the peace settlement was permanent. Both the British and the Prussians wanted to sign a peace with Napoleon, however, so long as he accepted France’s 1792 borders and immediately handed over a number of fortresses as a pledge of his commitment. None of the allies shared Alexander’s view that their armies should first take Paris and then gauge French opinion on the nature of the regime with which to sign peace. To them this policy seemed too unreliable. The last thing the allies wanted was to incite popular revolt, or to find themselves involved in a French civil war. But if Napoleon did fall, then in the British, Austrian and Prussian view the only alternative was the return of the Bourbons, in the person of the family’s legitimate head, Louis XVIII.49

Alexander was unenthusiastic about the restoration of the Bourbons. In part this simply reflected his low opinion of Louis XVIII, who had lived in exile in Russia for a number of years and had not impressed the emperor. Alexander was no legitimist. If anything, he had a touch of radical chic. His grandmother, Catherine II, had sought to impress Voltaire and Diderot. Alexander enjoyed winning the plaudits of Germaine de Staél, whose own preferred candidate to rule France was Marshal Bernadotte. Alexander himself briefly toyed with Bernadotte’s candidacy. This infuriated his allies and even led to murmurings that the emperor was trying to put a Russian client on the French throne.50

In fact this was not the point and Alexander contemplated a number of possible candidates, of whom the crown prince of Sweden was but one. The basic issue was Alexander’s belief that a society as sophisticated and modern as France could only be ruled by a regime which respected civil rights and allowed representative institutions. That regime must also accept part of the Revolution’s legacy if it was to survive. The emperor doubted whether the restored Bourbons would do any of these things. As always with Alexander, he was most believable when telling people what they did not want to hear. Even as late as 17 March, he told a royalist emissary, the Baron de Vitrolles, that he had considered not just Bernadotte but also Eugène de Beauharnais and the Duke of Orléans as possible rulers who, unlike Louis XVIII, would not be prisoners of memories and supporters who demanded revenge for the past. The emperor staggered Vitrolles by saying that even a wisely ordered republic might suit France best.51

Above all, Alexander wanted a stable France which would live in peace with itself and with its neighbours. Better than anyone the emperor understood the enormous difficulties of bringing a Russian army across Europe and the unique circumstances which had made this possible. It might never be possible to repeat this effort. As he said to Lord Castlereagh amidst the arguments that raged among the allies in early February, it was precisely for this reason that Russia required a peace settlement which would endure, not a mere armistice. It was on these grounds that he opposed any peace with Napoleon. But it was the same anxiety which led him to look at alternatives to the Bourbons. In fact Alexander underestimated Louis XVIII and came in time to accept with good grace the Bourbons’ restoration. But his fears were not groundless, as the overthrow of the incompetent Charles X subsequently showed.52

After fierce arguments with his allies in the second week of February 1814 Alexander was forced to give way, however. The fact that towards the end of this week news began to arrive of Blücher’s defeat by Napoleon only confirmed the dangers of Russia’s isolation. The emperor had to agree that if a restoration was to occur, then the only possible choice was the head of the royal house, Louis XVIII. More important from Alexander’s perspective, he had to accept that the negotiations at Châtillon would continue and that the allies would ratify a peace with Napoleon if he accepted the 1792 frontiers and surrendered a number of fortresses. On the other hand, the allies did also agree that if Napoleon refused the allied conditions, then they would continue the war until victory was achieved over him. Frederick William III provided some balm to Alexander’s injured feelings by refusing to join Metternich in threatening withdrawal from the war should the Russian monarch refuse to back down. The king insisted that so long as the Russians remained in the field, the royal army would fight alongside them.53

Meanwhile near disaster had befallen Blücher. After the conference in Brienne on 2 February he marched northwards with Sacken’s and Olsufev’s 18,000 Russians. Blücher aimed to unite with the 16,500 men of Yorck’s Army Corps who were advancing just north of the river Marne towards Château Thierry and the nearly 15,000 Prussians and Russians under generals Kleist and Kaptsevich who were approaching Châlons from the east. A French corps under Marshal MacDonald was retreating in front of Yorck, and Blücher ordered Sacken to hurry forward to try to cut it off. Meanwhile he himself stopped with Olsufev’s detachment at Vertus, waiting for Kleist and Kaptsevich to arrive. MacDonald in fact evaded Sacken’s clutches but the attempt to catch him took Sacken’s troops all the way to La Ferte-sous-Jouarre, well to the west of Château Thierry on the south bank of the Marne.

Blücher’s army was now dispersed over a distance of more than 70 kilometres, which made communications difficult and mutual support often impossible.

The details of the military operations which followed were complicated but the essence was simple. Napoleon thrust northwards through Sézanne into the middle of Blücher’s army and defeated one isolated allied detachment after another. Since Blücher was the greatest Prussian hero of the Napoleonic Wars, some Prussian memoirists and historians had an understandable tendency to protect his reputation. They offered a number of partial excuses for his defeat. Correctly, they argued that if Schwarzenberg had pressed Napoleon’s rear then the Army of Silesia would have been in no danger. Instead, not merely did the main army crawl forward, its commander-in-chief also withdrew Wittgenstein’s Army Corps to the west, instead of leaving it as a link to Blücher. The field-marshal’s defenders also argued that if Lieutenant-General Olsufev had destroyed the key bridge across the Petit Morin stream the moment danger threatened from the south, Napoleon could never have achieved his march into the middle of Blücher’s army. Undoubtedly too, the allies had poor maps and incorrect information about local roads – as tended to be the case in fighting on foreign soil. Both Blücher and Sacken, for example, believed that the road along which Napoleon marched northwards from Sézanne was impassable for an army. Nevertheless the basic point remains that although in close proximity to the enemy, Blücher scattered his army to such an extent that it could not concentrate for battle and he could not exercise effective command. He made this mistake partly because he believed that Napoleon was on the verge of final defeat and Paris was his for the plucking.54

On 10 February Napoleon advanced from Sézanne and overwhelmed Olsufev’s small corps at Champaubert. The emperor had just been reinforced by thousands of experienced cavalry arrived from Spain. Olsufev had a total of seventeen horsemen. A nimbler commander might have retreated in time to save his men but Olsufev was still smarting from Sacken’s criticism for not having held his ground at Brienne two weeks before. Though his junior generals begged him to fall back on Blücher, Olsufev insisted on sticking to his orders to hold his position and seems to have believed that Blücher was himself advancing from the east into the enemy rear. Napoleon claimed to have taken 6,000 prisoners, which was a remarkable achievement since Olsufev’s ‘corps’ numbered 3,690, of whom almost half escaped with their flags and many of their guns under cover of the winter night and the nearby forests. The key point, however, was that Napoleon and 30,000 men were now standing halfway between Sacken’s 15,000 troops at La Ferte and Blücher’s 14,000 near Vertus, directly on the road which connected the two wings of the Army of Silesia.55

The safest option would have been for Sacken to retreat north of the river Marne and join up with Yorck at Château Thierry. Yorck urged this on Sacken but to no effect. Sacken’s orders from Blücher were to march back down the road which led eastwards through Champaubert to Étoges, where he was supposed to reunite with Olsufev and Blücher himself. These orders had been issued before Blücher had a clear understanding of Napoleon’s movements and were now out of date but Sacken did not know this. He set out on the evening of 10 February. He knew that Yorck had been ordered by Blücher to cross the Marne and support him but did not know that the Prussian general had queried these orders and delayed his movement. When he received his orders Sacken had no way of knowing that Napoleon was astride the road down which he was expecting to march.

Late in the morning of 11 February Sacken bumped into the enemy advance guard just west of the village of Montmirail. Soon afterwards he learned from prisoners that Napoleon himself and his main army were present. With the battle in full flow, the Russian commander then received a message from Yorck to say that the road southwards from the Marne to Montmirail was so bad that only a minority of his infantry and none of his guns could advance to the Russians’ rescue. Allied maps showed this to be a paved road whereas in reality it was a country track which the recent thaw had turned into deep mud.

Thanks to his infantry’s discipline and steadiness Sacken succeeded in extricating his corps with most of its baggage and artillery and retreated during the evening and the night down the awful road which led northwards to the river Marne at Château Thierry. Fires were lit every two hundred paces to guide the infantry along the way. In the drenching rain, with their muskets useless, the Russian infantry had both to march in compact masses to keep the enemy cavalry at bay and on occasion to break ranks in order to pull their artillery out of the mud. Though very outnumbered, Ilarion Vasilchikov and his splendid cavalry regiments greatly helped to protect the infantry and to drag away most of the guns. Napoleon pressed the retreating Russians hard and by the time they finally got across the Marne they had lost 5,000 men. Russian casualties would have been far higher had it not been for the courageous rearguard actions of Yorck’s Prussian infantry. Sacken was a hardbitten old campaigner and ‘politician’. The day after the battle, finally tracked down by his nervous and exhausted staff, who had lost him in the course of the retreat, he was as calm and self-assured as always. In the best traditions of coalition warfare, in his official report he blamed the defeat on the Prussians, and in particular on Yorck’s failure to obey Blücher’s orders and support him in good time.56 Having defeated Yorck and Sacken, Napoleon was preparing to march south to block Schwarzenberg when he learned to his astonishment on 13 February that Blücher was advancing down the road which led to Montmirail. Blücher had misinterpreted the retreat of the French forces watching the road and believed that Napoleon was already heading south against the main army. Instead, having reached Vauchamps by the morning of 14 February, Blücher found himself confronted by Napoleon himself and the bulk of his army, which greatly outnumbered the allied force. Like Sacken’s troops three days before, Blücher’s infantry was forced to retreat in square for many miles under heavy pressure. At least Sacken’s foot soldiers had Vasilchikov’s cavalry and Yorck’s Prussians to help them. Blücher’s 16,000 infantry on the contrary were retreating on their own, in broad daylight, through excellent cavalry country and with very few horsemen to help them. Unlike Sacken’s veterans, most of the 6,000 Russians in Lieutenant-General Kaptsevich’s corps were new recruits, in action for the first time. Their musketry was at times more enthusiastic than effective. One-third of the men became casualties but, as French observers recognized, it was a tribute to the great courage and discipline of the Russian and Prussian infantry that Blücher’s whole detachment was not destroyed.57 In the course of five days’ fighting Blücher’s army had lost almost one-third of its men. Napoleon was ecstatic. Already on the evening of 11 February he was writing to his brother Joseph, ‘this army of Silesia was the allies’ best army’, which was true enough. Much less truthfully, he added: ‘The enemy army of Silesia no longer exists: I have totally routed it.’ Even a week later, when there had been time to weigh the true results of the battle, he claimed in a letter to Eugène de Beauharnais to have taken more than 30,000 prisoners, which meant that ‘I have destroyed the Army of Silesia’. The reality was very different. On 18 February, the day after Napoleon wrote this letter, 8,000 men of Langeron’s Army Corps arrived to reinforce Blücher and there were many more Russian and Prussian units of the Army of Silesia, now relieved from blockading fortresses, on the march. Hundreds of prisoners of war were recaptured and many missing men returned to the ranks in the days immediately after the battle. Within a matter of days, Blücher’s army was again as strong as it had been on 10 February.58

Ironically, in the end it was Napoleon himself who suffered most from his victories against Blücher. After the battle of La Rothière Napoleon very grudgingly granted Caulaincourt full powers to accept the allied peace conditions. On 5 February the foreign minister was told that ‘His Majesty gives you carte blanche to bring the negotiations to a happy end, to save the capital and to avoid a battle on which the last hopes of the nation would rest’. Caulaincourt was bewildered by these instructions and asked for clarification, enquiring whether he was supposed to concede all the allied demands immediately or whether he still had some time for negotiation. Before there was time to reply, Napoleon had defeated Blücher and his tone had changed completely.59

On 17 February he revoked Caulaincourt’s full powers and instructed him to accept nothing less than the so-called Frankfurt conditions, in other words France’s natural frontiers. He justified his stance by saying that he had been prepared to accept the allied terms in order to avoid risking everything on a battle. Since he had faced that risk and taken more than 30,000 allied prisoners, the situation had changed entirely. He had smashed the Army of Silesia and now was marching to destroy Schwarzenberg’s army before it could escape across the French border. Four days later he wrote an arrogant letter to Francis II, stating that he would never settle for anything less than France’s natural frontiers. He added that even if the allies had succeeded in imposing the 1792 frontiers, such a humiliating peace could never have endured. To his brother Joseph he was even more explicit: ‘If I had accepted the historical borders I would have taken up arms again two years later, and I would have said to the nation that this was not a peace that I had signed but a forced capitulation.’ In fact the heady smell of victory made Napoleon now aspire to more even than France’s natural frontiers. To Eugène de Beauharnais he wrote that France might now be able to hold on to Italy. Napoleon’s words and actions in these days played directly into Alexander’s hands and justified everything the Russian emperor had said to his allies. It is true that to some extent the French and Russian monarchs were pursuing the same strategy of allowing military operations to determine the peace settlement. But Alexander was more realistic about the true balance of military power and the likely outcome of the campaign. Above all, he had some sense of limits and compromise, and a far more sensitive grasp of the connections between diplomacy and war.60

None of this was yet clear to the allies in mid-February 1814, however, when their cause was at its lowest ebb. After defeating Blücher Napoleon raced south to deal with Schwarzenberg. This was the Napoleon of old whose speed and boldness stunned opponents, rather than the commander who in 1812–13 had been more inclined to rely on sheer numbers of men and weight of concentrated artillery firepower. Certainly he was far too speedy for Schwarzenberg. The main army had crawled forward along the river Seine, enjoying a number of rest-days en route to recover from its exertions. Even so, by 16 February Schwarzenberg’s army was within three to four days of Paris. Each of his four front-line Army Corps (Bianchi’s Austrians, the Württembergers, the Bavarians, Wittgenstein’s Russians) had its own road. But the four columns were a good 50 kilometres apart and a combination of mud, the river Seine and the poor condition of the side roads made lateral communication very slow, as Knesebeck had predicted. Schwarzenberg believed that this was the only way his army could move or feed itself but it made the allies very vulnerable to a concentrated enemy attack. The Russian and Austrian reserves were still south of the Seine. To make things worse, Wittgenstein became so impatient with Schwarzenberg’s slowness that he pushed forward alone and further isolated himself on the allied right flank. In particular, the 4,000 men of his advance guard, under Peter Pahlen, had been sent all the way forward to Mormant and were totally exposed, as Pahlen and Alexander himself warned.61

Before Wittgenstein could react, Napoleon pounced on the morning of 17 February. Pahlen was a fine rearguard commander but his 4,000 men stood no chance against overwhelming odds. His cavalry escaped but almost all his infantry were killed or taken prisoner. This included, for example, 338 men of the Estland Regiment, of which only 3 officers and 69 men remained in the ranks by the evening of 17 February. The regiment had fought with great courage under Wittgenstein in 1812 and then again at Kulm and Leipzig in 1813. To do him justice, Wittgenstein took full responsibility for the debacle and completely exonerated Pahlen, but the gentlemanly behaviour of its commanding general was not much consolation for the soldiers of the Estland Regiment, who had deserved a better fate. Napoleon’s advance then bundled the whole allied army back across the Seine. Schwarzenberg’s only thought was to retreat south-westwards to safety towards Troyes and Bar-sur-Aube. This he achieved, helped in part by the fact that a sudden shift in the weather froze the ground and allowed the retreating allied columns to move off the roads and across the country.62

Inevitably the military disasters of mid-February added to the existing tensions among the allies. Alexander and Frederick William blamed Schwarzenberg for not helping Blücher and believed – in part correctly – that he had advanced slowly for political reasons. Unpleasant rumours went round that the Austrians were deliberately preserving their own troops and ‘bleeding’ the Russians and Prussians so as to be in a stronger position when the war ended and a peace congress divided up the spoils among the allies. This was certainly unfair as regards Schwarzenberg, who was much too honourable a man to act in this way. Schwarzenberg’s own interpretation of events was that Blücher and his associates had finally come by their just deserts for taking absurd risks and ‘manoeuvring like pigs’. He wrote to Francis II on 20 February that the 6,000 men the main army had lost in the last few days were a relatively cheap proof that the advance had been a mistake from the start, as he had always predicted would be the case.63

Meanwhile grumbling grew in the ranks as regiments marched and counter-marched over an ever more exhausted terrain, knowing in their bones that their generals lacked confidence and were at war with each other. As always, retreat and growing hunger sapped morale and discipline. General Oertel, now the army’s provost-general, was given orders to coordinate the efforts of all the commandants along the lines of communications to stamp out marauding. Trofim Evdokimov, a soldier of the Izmailovsky Guards, even tried to kill one of Alexander’s own aides-de-camp when the latter intervened to stop him plundering.64

It was in the second week of February that problems in feeding the men and horses really began to hit hard. As Barclay wrote on 10 February, such problems were inevitable the moment the army began to halt its advance or to concentrate for battle: ‘No country would long be able to sustain the enormous mass of the concentrated allied forces.’ Units stole supplies designated for neighbours or allies. The Russians complained bitterly that the Austrian intendancy controlled the line of communications back through Switzerland and favoured their own supply columns. As always, the horses were the hardest problem and finding hay in the middle of winter a growing nightmare for the cavalry. Foraging expeditions travelled ever further for increasingly meagre rewards. The Courland Dragoons, for example, found that ‘foraging expeditions required the sending out of virtually entire cavalry regiments and vast efforts only succeeded in collecting very insignificant quantities of food and forage’.65

If this was unpleasantly reminiscent of the French experience around Moscow in 1812, so too was the growing resistance of the French peasantry to allied requisitioning and plunder. Even by 29 January Kankrin was reporting that ‘unless pressed very hard, the population provides nothing’. Subsequently, with Napoleon’s fortunes improving, local French authorities often became more inclined to heed his orders to resist the allies. Peasants sometimes abandoned their ruined villages to take shelter in the forests and raid allied supplies moving down the roads. Sections of Kankrin’s mobile magazine moving up from Switzerland were ambushed. Vladimir Löwenstern lost 80,000 rubles’ worth of horses and other property when a French patrol sneaked out of the nearby artillery depot and ambushed a Russian supply train resting in the village of Mons-en-Laonnois, massacring its Cossack escort. General Winzengerode wished to burn the village down in reprisal but was dissuaded. But Barclay de Tolly ordered that the ‘criminals’ who had attacked Kankrin’s supply columns ‘must be punished as an example to terrify others’, with public hangings and posters displayed throughout the neighbourhood to deter further attacks. Kankrin was an efficient, level-headed and by now very experienced head of the army’s intendancy. If even he was saying by 4 March that problems of supply were worse than at any time since the war began in 1812, things were clearly very serious.66

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