Monday, 4 August 2014

France 2014 - 1814 Campaign Sites

Like a lot of napoleonic wargamers I have taken a passing interest in the Campaign of 1814. I think part of it is that for all intents and purposes the game was up for Napoleon after Leipzig and yes he did pull off several impressive victories in the face of imposing numbers of Allied troops but the campaign was only ever going to end in tears for the French.

Well that's what I used to think, but after several years of various commentators coming back to have another look at this campaign and the thoughts of eminent writers like Paddy Griffith (see the downloadable articles). I think that there is more to the 1814 Campaign that deserves another look.

When you consider that the allies were by no means united on a common strategy in terms of whether they wanted to see France beaten and demobilised, certainly the Austrians were very worried about the balance of power without Napoleon. Then you have an army fighting against the allies on home turf with a population not only supporting them but indeed hostile to an enemy that was happy to burn, rape and pillage its way to Paris.

On the other hand you have a French army badly in need of everything, but mostly cavalry, having to fight an overwhelmingly strong enemy in winter because Napoleon was up to his old trick of not appointing a theatre commander in his absence. The end result being that the allies did not stop in winter quarters as he expected, and because French response to invasion was uncoordinated he did not get the winter to rebuild his army.

So given these fundamental issues for both forces the campaign was not as foregone a conclusion as at first seems. Napoleon was still a far better general than all the allies put together and by occupying the central position with a force containing a large number of elite units the scene was set for an interesting clash of wills.

The next thing to consider is the terrain. Before our little drive through Eastern France last week I had never visited the area before. For my English audience, the best way to describe the terrain is like driving over Salisbury Plain but much much bigger. You can see why the Germans were here at Maily Le Camp testing their Tiger tanks before Normandy and why Patton's Third Army raced over these open fields, this is great open tank country with sight lines only interrupted by large woods and rolling fields.

Wide open fields, typical of the country around Maily le Camp in Eastern France
The road network is Roman, so that means long straight roads crossing the countryside lined with poplars and lime trees. Off course when Napoleon was here it was muddy or snowy in a bleak mid winter. not like the lovely sunny pasture land that we travelled through with occasional vast expanses of Champagne vine yards to interrupt the view. The villages and towns are composed of a mixture of strong stone built houses together with wood and daub constructions reminiscent of the beamed houses in the Suisse Normandie, with many being thatched in Napoleon's time.

The 1814 Campaign Statistics by Paddy Griffith
Check out the Paddy Griffith article discussing the 1814 campaign and I think you might be inspired to look at it anew.

I have picked out a few of the sites we visited last week and include two very useful links for those interested in doing something similar. The Champagne-Ardenne tourist link has a particularly useful app for the IPad that has information and mapping guides to direct you to key sites

I have also put up two articles by the late great Mr Paddy Griffith that I think appeared on the Kriegspiel UK site that seems now not to be up. They are very pertinent to the 1814 campaign and as a wargamer make excellent reading as you would expect from such a renowned contributor to the hobby. I've put them into PDF format and they can be downloaded from "My Resources and Downloads" in the right hand bar.

Fere Champenoise article by Paddy Griffith 
The map below is a section of the great touring guide map from the Napoleon Monuments site to indicate the route we took. We planned, via Piney, to aim for our start point, the museum and former military academy at Brienne Le Chateau, that the young Bonaparte attended before being commissioned into the artillery.

Map illustrating our drive through Eastern France and the stops underlined in blue that are referred to in the post
I should say that the Parc de la Foret d'Orient in and around Brienne has put up a series of tiled stands at points of historical interest relating to the 1814 campaign and our map enabled us to follow these sites and get a good understanding of the events. I have put up pictures from these stands throughout this post for reference.

The first village on our route to Brienne was one I immediately recognised from my pre-work studying the Monuments site. The market hall is an imposing structure that you see on entering the village and the house close by must have been a welcome site for the, no doubt chastened, Emperor after his close encounter of the Cossack kind.

The Emperor under attack by Cossack cavalry
This would make an interesting little skirmish game with the Emperor, Chasseur a Cheval of the Guard, the 3rd Hussars a baggage train and lots of Cossacks.

The stand at Piney explains the events before the Emperor's arrival in the village

The incredible roof structure over the market hall in Piney where Napoleon's baggage was stored

The military school at Brienne was founded in 1776, one of twelve such schools, intended to train the children of the nobility to be soldiers. The building became a museum in 1969 and houses artifacts detailing the history of the schools and the battles of 1814.

The entrance to the former academy and museum at Brienne Le Chateau

The comment on the stand above reads
Napoleon wrote " it is not Corsica but Brienne my native land ..." He was sent to the Military Academy in 1779 and stayed five years. The purpose of the twelve French academies was to prepare pupils for the main academy in Paris. He passed by Brienne on his way to be crowned King of Italy in 1805. Nine years later the chateau served as his HQ during the battles of Brienne and La Rothiere. Whilst he was in exile in St Helena he bequeathed a million francs to the town.

Battle of Brienne, 29th January 1814 - Theodore Yung

A description and suggested wargame scenario for the Battle of Brienne Le Chateau can be found on these links.
Battle of Brienne
Volley & Bayonet Scenarios - Brienne

The museum houses a small collection of artifacts, uniformed manikins and weapons and made an interesting visit. I have to say it would have been even more interesting if the museum catered for an English speaking audience. Not only was all the information about the displays in French but so were most of the guides for tourists. I put my feedback in the comments book and noticed a similar complaint from a Dutch family a few days before!! Oh well "c'est la vie" as the French would say.

French Line Grenadier

The end figure, nearest to camera, would have been the typical dress
of the "Marie Louise's" (Young French conscripts).

The infamous "sabre briquet", aptly named as a short little pointy blade like this was really only useful for cutting fire wood

By 1814, the ornate shako plate designs of the early empire had given way to these mass produced stamped plate versions

Cavalry weapons, pistol, light cavalry troopers sabre (right) and an officers sabre of the Guard d'Honneur (left)

Officer of the Guardes d'Honneur

Rarely used in combat because its sight was often enough to cause one side or the other to run rather than cross bayonets

Just a little down the road from Brienne you arrive at the little village of La Rothiere and a little further on Trannes. These two villages marked the positions of the two opposing lines at the Battle of La Rothiere fought in horrible weather on the 1st February 1814, between two familiar adversaries, Napoleon and Blucher.

Wurttemburg dragoons charging French infantry at La Rothiere
Map from Wikipedia

The memorial to the battle also commemorates other later conflicts

The Church in La Rothiere was central to the fighting in the village. The timbered style of building is seen on the right

Blow by blow account of the battle is captured on the stand in the village
You can read about how the battle unfolded on the following links.

Battle of La Rothiere

Battle of La Rothiere 1814

The opposite village of Trannes where Blucher launched his attacks from

The bridge at Dolancourt is interesting on two accounts, a skirmish battle at the end of February as French troops under Marshal Oudinot fell back over the bridge closely pursued by Austrian and Russian troops under General Schwarzenberg.

The second more dramatic event was when Napoleon was hoping to protect Paris by drawing the allied forces on to him by moving on their line of communication vis Bar sur Aube. Unknown to him was that, due to a captured dispatch, the allies were very aware of his intent and called his bluff by going straight for Paris and ignoring his sortie.

The news of the imminent fall of Paris reached him here at Dolancourt bridge and realising he would not be able to get back to relieve the capital headed back to Fontainbleu and a future in Elba. To his credit he acknowledged that this time the allies had outwitted him and he paid tribute to their double bluff.

For more information on the skirmish at Dolancourt follow the link and scroll to the bottom of the page.
The Bridge at Dolancourt

The road from Troyes heads down the slope to Dolancourt bridge


Whilst Napoleon was away in pursuit of Blucher, he left Marshal Oudinot the mission of slowing down General Schwarzenberg whose Army of Bohemia was marching for a second time on Troyes. Oudinot left Dolancourt to place himself in the path of the enemy. The French didn't have enough troops to seriously worry the Army of Bohemia and had decided to adopt delaying tactics.

Prince Gortschakoff's Russian army corps that had come up from Lusigny had thus to force the French from Laubressel if they wanted to continue their march. The defence of Laubressel had been given to General Rottemberg, commander of the 2nd Young Guard Division. It was cold and damp and the roads had been turned into quagmires that made the movement of cavalry and guns difficult.

Rottemberg had occupied the village on March 2nd and had hastily organised his positions so as to oppose the progress of the enemy. The allied deployed quickly but were unable to take the village and when night fell the French abandoned it in silence. The French continued their retreat and on the 4th of March the Army of Bohemia entered Troyes.

An account of the action can be read here.
Battle of Laubressel

Battle of Laubressel - Langlois

That church seems familiar

I knew I'd seen that church somewhere before

View towards the allied position as pictured by Langlois

The view the Young Guard would have had as they left town

The beautiful city of Troyes was a key objective for the Army of Bohemia, and thankfully the old buildings still survive today and made a great place to stop for lunch.

I imagine my home city of Exeter would have looked a lot like this prior to 1941 after when Mr Hitler sent the Luftwaffe over to help re-plan the city. We have a few similar buildings surviving but not in the numbers present in Troyes.

After a lovely lunch and leisurely walk around Troyes, we headed north to the little town of Fere Champenoise.

Battle of Fere Champenoise 25th March 1814 - Bogdan Willewald

Monument to the Russian forces engaged in the battle

The description of the young French infantry nicknamed "Marie Louise's" after the young fresh faced French Empress reminded me of how these young soldiers were drilled again and again in how to form square because of the threat of enemy cavalry. It seems they were determined to keep their formation despite their hopeless situation and the offer to surrender by no less a personage than the Czar.

Summary of the battle recorded on the memorial

A Russian lieutenant killed in the battle lies buried in the village church in Cannantre

Looking out from the high ground north of Fere Champenoise on the road to Bannes. The French infantry squares made their last stand in the right background surrounded by enemy cavalry and horse guns
Further descriptions of the battle can be followed on these links together with a wargaming scenario.
Battle of Fere-Champenoise
Battle La Fere Champenoise 1814
Age of Eagles wargames scenario

Thus our afternoon drew to a close and we headed for home. I came away with a lot of enthusiasm and ideas for looking at the 1814 campaign. The forces involved in a lot of the actions are like those in the Peninsular War quite manageable to model and provide a great variety of troop types. I had been wondering whether to keep my collection of Prussian and Russian AB's and my French Guard units and now I can see them fitting in to a new collection in time. There would also be the opportunity to run a few battles in the snow and snowy Napoleonic battlefields always look special.


  1. Exemplary travelogue, Jonathan! I enjoyed following the 1814 campaign vicariously.

    Many believe the 1814 campaign to be N's finest. I tend to agree.

    Great stuff!

    1. Cheers Jonathan. I'm tending to agree more and more with Paddy Griffith's analysis that most Wargamers get seduced by the 1813 campaign, thinking that the war was decided at Leipzig. The 1814 campaign was Napoleon's finest, because it still really mattered and he knew it. The other important consideration is that unlike 1813 the battles are very manageable for the average gamer.

  2. Nice trip. Lots of things to see and experience.

    1. Hi Engel, and thank you. I love your blog those Mamelukes looked stunning. I will be spending a bit of holiday time sifting through your posts. Well done

  3. Great read! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi NW, thank you. I enjoyed looking through your blog too. Love the French infantry on masse, great painting and basing.