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Thursday, 7 August 2014

France 2014 - Montmirail, Vauchamps & Champaubert

Battle of Montmirail - Horace Vernet, showing the final attack on Marchais by Ricard's division and two battalions of the Old Guard
The six days campaign of 1814 has rightly been described as perhaps Napoleon's finest. The campaign was fought from the 9th to the 14th of February during which Napoleon, with an army of about 30,000 men, took on Marshal  Blucher's force of around 120,000 men. In a series of four battles he inflicted 17,750 casualties whilst only suffering about 3,500 and stopped the allied offensive against Paris. The campaign is a fascinating but complex series of movements that enabled Napoleon to outmanoeuvre his opponents separate corps . One of the best presentations I have seen on this, is at the Art Of Battle site with a series of animated maps by Jonathan Webb. Just download the  PowerPoint slides and follow the action, it's really cool and will be a lot quicker than me blathering on about how we got where we are.
The Art of Battle/six-days-campaign-1814

Another very useful site with some interesting data on the armies involved in this series of battles can be found here
1814 around Montmirail

The useful summaries on Wikipedia and the Nafziger orbats are linked as well, further into the post. So on with the tour.

MONTMIRAIL & MARCHAIS



Chateau de Montmirail
On the day after the Battle of Champaubert, the 11th February 1814, the Emperor arrived at the Chateau de Montmirail at 9.00am and after a quick breakfast left at 9.15am stopping on the road just before the village of Marchais, the present day position of the monument to the battle.

Outside the Chateau an explanation of the campaign and battle as part of the 200th commemoration
We followed the same road that Napoleon used that morning and along the way found another smaller monument to the resistance against Nazism, in another more recent struggle for freedom.


The red dot on the map shows approximately the position on the road where the monument is and to help illustrate where I have taken the pictures. The old map is really very good as the position where Napoleon placed himself gives a good view of the French right flank where York's advance guard are shown arriving at Fontnelle and Les Tourneux, however the folds in the ground to the front  give a view of the edge of Le Tremblay, but not Marchais beyond. That village only came into view as we headed down the road  towards General Sacken's position and the slight valley between the opposing lines.

I have outlined Marchais as I spent a bit of time getting some pictures of this village, ravaged by close up house to house fighting on the day.


The monument at Montmirail marks Napoleon's position in the battle
The picture below is taken from the monument looking down the road to Haute Epine with the outskirts of Le Tremblay in the left centre. You can see the folds in the ground as illustrated in the 1848 "Alison's History of Europe" map. Likewise the next picture shows the view out to the French right flank where York's advance guard arrived.

The road from the monument to Haute Epine

The view from the monument out to the French right flank
Moving off down the road, you crest the next low ridge, and find the whole battlefield opened up before you. A little way further, on the left, is the road leading off towards the bitterly fought over village of  Marchais seen here from the road junction, with the church spire in the right background. Note how open the fields and lines of sight are once over the French ridge, and try to imagine the columns of Ney's and Ricard's infantry moving left to right into the Russian position.

The road to Marchais with the village church spire in the right background

MARCHAIS


Marchais
Marchais is a small sleepy village that gives no indication to the carefree visitor of its violent history save for the plaque on the wall on the farm building as you enter its main street.

The old farm on the entrance to Marchais


The rough translation is
"This farm, formerly named Brazen Court Farm, was taken after heavy fighting with allied powers by the Imperial Guard and the Conscript Division Ricard 11th February 1814".


General de Division Ricard
The fighting in Marchais was up close and personal

The church was also heavily involved in the fighting, becoming a significant strong point for its Russian defenders.

The Church in Marchais

Many old buildings modernised
Battle of Montmirail
Nafziger Order of Battle - Allied & French forces at Montmirail

Walking battlefields really opens the eye to the advantages and disadvantages the ground has to offer the forces involved. Montmirail is a great position for the French, a reverse slope that the Duke would have approved of, with good views of the French right flank to give adequate warning of any approach by York's corps.

General von Osten Sacken
Fabian Gottlieb von Osten-Sacken

The initial force under Napoleon would have been able to use the ground to hide its exact strength as Sacken attacked and attempted to push them back on Montmirail. The arrival of Mortier's troops would have been a big surprise and the counterattack that developed. Once Marchais was taken the whole of Sacken's line would have become unhinged with the French line and guard cavalry able to roam about on his left flank and rear area.

VAUCHAMPS

Driving down the D933 from Montmirail we came to our next site, the Battlefield of Vauchamps. The battle was the last engagement of the six day campaign and saw Napoleon come to grips with "Old Marshal Vorwarts", Blucher.

The 3rd Cuirassiers under Grouchy broke several squares in the pursuit at Vauchamps


Old Blucher was attempting to snatch a small victory from what was threatening to become a minor disaster by attacking the rear most corps of Napoleon's army under Marshal Marmont, about 4,000 men who had been detailed to observe Bluchers two corps of Kleist and Kapzevitch each about 11,000 men. However Napoleon was one step ahead of the old Prussian warhorse and had anticipated such a move by marching with 19,000 men of his own under Grouchy, arriving at Vauchamps on the 14th of February to support Marmont. Most importantly Napoleon's force contained the bulk of his battle cavalry under Grouchy and Nansouty and would see him have the advantage in this arm for this battle, something of a novelty in 1814.

Once Blucher became aware that Marmont had been reinforced by the Emperor he attempted to break contact, but by then he had overextended his forces and his withdrawal came under pressure from the combined arms of Napoleon's force, inflicting severe casualties on the allies as they attempted to fall back in square formation. With squares being broken under the relentless pursuit, Blucher could be thankful that in February the days are short and darkness comes earlier, allowing his army to make a nighttime retreat to break contact.


We approached Vauchamps along the road that Napoleon's troops approached the village, as shown on the map. As before I have indicated the position of the monument to the battle with the red dot and circled the two areas I focused on, Jenvilliers and Sarrechamps Farm; the key areas of cover that Blucher's men sought in their harrowing retreat through the flat open fields outside of Vauchamps.

The monument to the battle near to the church
The church in Vauchamps in the suitably named Rue du Garde


I think the picture below amply illustrates the nature of this battle, for once Nasouty on the left and Grouchy on the right with their Guard and Heavy cavalry squadrons got past the broken terrain preceding the village of Vauchamps (check the map above showing the woods on the left side of the map opening out to clear terrain on the right) this was the terrain that greeted them. The battle then became one long cavalry pursuit with only the wet soggy ground preventing the French infantry and guns being able to keep pace with the mounted troops and thus saving the Russo-Prussian force from a more devastating defeat.

The road out of Vauchamps and the fields that Blucher's men had to cross whilst under attack
The village church in Janvilliers, a temporary haven from cavalry attack

The 1st (Polish) Lancers of the Imperial Guard at full tilt

The monument to the 1st Lancers of the Imperial Guard
Again a rough translation of the monument reads
"During the Battle of Vauchamps this village and surrounding farms were the witnesses of several battles that involved the first regiment of lancers of the Imperial Guard under General Count Krasinski".

A few thousand yards further on out into the fields (see map above) is Sarrechamps Farm now a peaceful mass breeding establishment for ducks, geese, chickens and turkeys, but in 1814 became an Essling Grannary style defensive position as the 10th Prussian brigade sort shelter from the storm amid its formidably strong walls.

The formidable stronghold of Sarrechamps Farm

The plaque on the wall records the fighting, two hundred years ago
Again roughly translated
"The heroic fighters of a battalion of the 10th Prussian brigade and Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard who fought in this place, February 14th, 1814"

It would seem the Prussians resisted for two hours until being overcome.

Battle of Vauchamps
Nafziger Order of Battle Allied & French at Vauchamps

CHAMPAUBERT

Our final battlefield of the day was in fact the first battle in the set of four and was instrumental in enabling Napoleon to occupy the central position among Blucher's dispersed corps and thus to defeat them, as he did, in detail. To get there was just a short drive on from Vauchamps along the D933.

Battle of Champaubert - Langlois

The Battle of Champaubert was a straight forward envelopment battle designed to completely annihilate the enemy force and, in that design, was completely successful. More than that though was the domino effect this battle had by opening up the other allied corps to be picked off individually or in groups before they could come to each others assistance, such was the military genius of Napoleon.

General Olssufiev commander of Russian IX Corps
The fact is that Russian General Olssufiev should have refused battle as soon as he recognised his situation, his 4,000 men vs the 15,000 of the Emperor's, and beaten a hasty retreat to the east and the approaching corps of Kleist and Kapzevitch. These two allied armies would hear the gunfire from the battle but not change their direction of march to the sound of those guns.

Instead, perhaps feeling pressure from previous poor performance and not being Blucher's favourite Russian General, he gave battle in front of the village of Champaubert. The end result was that after five hours of battle his corps was destroyed and many of his men captured including himself, a guest at the Emperor's dinner table at the Blue House on the crossroads in the village.

The monument to the battle erected by Napoleon III
and situated where the red dot is on the map
The Blue house on the opposite side of the crossroads to the monument where Napoleon stayed the night after the battle
The plaque recording the visit of the Emperor and his guest and the ubiquitous cannon ball lodged in the masonry, this time French, given the direction of travel. Rumour has it that this one may have been placed there!
The road that the French army used to move on Champaubert seen from the circled position on the map. The French artillery would have been set up in the centre right of this view whilst the Russian guns are to the left of camera
This would be a challenging scenario to set up as a wargame. The Russians are in a terrible position and the challenge in a scenario would be to see if you could better their performance over a five hour battle with a slight possibility of some of Kleist or Kapzevitch's troops coming up to save the day.

Battle of Champaubert
Nafziger Order of Battle French & Russian forces at Champaubert

Thus ends my series of posts touring the Napoleonic sites of Paris and Eastern France. It's been a great holiday and I have put on a bit of weight, giving in to the lovely food that is French cuisine. I must also thank my wife Carolyn for indulging me in allowing this time to really absorb and understand the terrain of the 1814 campaign. I really have come away inspired to do something with this Napoleonic period. Thank you to everyone who has shared a comment on the posts, it really has been nice to have a dialogue with fellow travellers in this period of history.

Back to Blighty on Saturday with a post covering off stuff at Hythe that we couldn't do when we set out, and then it will be normal service resumed with some painting to do on the German Division and perhaps a start on those Romans I put together during my time in Gaul.

16 comments:

  1. What an absolutely fantastic blog post! Inspiring account and imagery, a perfect combination with a good read and a cup of morning coffee! Thanks for taking the time to write and post this, a real treat.

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    1. Hi BP, thank you for your comment and high praise as I know from your own blog that you write very good battlefield posts yourself intermixed with some lovely painting, well done and thanks again.

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  2. Great and interesting post! Good to see that someone is interested in more than just Waterloo. In June i was in montmirail taking part in the 200-years anniversary reenactment. Up and about 1200 reenacters were fighting each other, it was a great experience. If you like i can send you some photos?

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    1. Hi Matthias, thank you, glad you enjoyed the read. I have to say though I will be going to Waterloo next summer so I can afford to put off writing about it until then, and yes the Napoleonic period is a lot more than just the culmination of the hundred days campaign.

      I would love to see your pictures. I got the impression of some of the reenactments by pictures placed on the signs at some of the monuments. Perhaps you could post a Dropbox link.

      I noticed you have been doing the Arnhem campaign as a series of games and had looked at Eindhoven. I don't know if you have read the post I did in September last year with a picture of the tank my Dad served in pictured in the city.

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  3. https://www.dropbox.com/sh/lwnkz9golxjhooy/AACSIs6A61tLBFcs6HB793i4a

    hope it will work ... These are just a few of my pictures.

    We fought at the entrance of the tiny villiage of marchais. You have made a great picture of our battlefield from the france position. I found it interesting to see that the battlefield were so full of hills and valleys. Sometimes we just saw the shakos of the france bataillons marching toward our position down in the valleys.

    Next year i will be at the waterloo-reenactment too.


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    1. Hey Mathias, those are very good, can I post them for others to share? I see what you mean about limited sight lines, especially if you are behind a line of chaps with shakos. With a bit of musket smoke mixed in I should think you will see even less.

      We are going over to Waterloo at the end of June to miss all the crowds on the bicentenary. We have a private guided tour booked for a couple of days we are there so we can take our time going over all the other battles, Ligny, Quatre Bras and Wavre.

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  4. Sure you can share these, but please not the JLI_4239_DxO. Standing in line while shooting, you´ll see nothing else but your comrades beside you. Also you don´t know whats going on all around you while loading and listening to your seargent. ; )

    Sounds like a great Trip to waterloo. With a private guide and the hole battlefields just for yourselfs i hope you have an exciting time in belgian.
    We were going there for 10 days, reeancting ligny, wavre and waterloo and doing all the marches.



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    1. Thanks, no problem.
      You have a very interesting insight in to what the (PBI) poor bloody infantry have to contend with. Multiply your scenario by 100 or so and you can imagine the chaos.

      I'm looking forward to next summer, both my lads are into Napoleonics and are keen to see the place. I am a bit of a grognard at this stuff, but it will be nice to kindle their enthusiasm, and our guide is local so I am hoping to hear a different slant on the events.

      After 10 days of reenacting and marching around the various sights you will probably feel as bad as some of the guys who had to do it for real. Have fun, I'm sure you will.

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  5. Each installment is better than the last! Really enjoyed the Montmirail/Vauchamps tour. Great work interweaving the battle photos, maps, history. The church at Vauchamps is a real monster.

    Fantastic!

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    1. Cheers Jon, trust me, the fun has been all mine, but I'm glad you have enjoyed the theme, as I have come away really enthused about this campaign.

      I always head for the church when there is a nearby battle site as you can bet it was there at the time and even if badly damaged will have probably been refurbished afterwards.

      I think you are right Vauchamps was pretty big in comparison to the others. I certainly have a handle on what to model when putting these battles together as a scenario, as all the churches in this part of France have a common look and they will, with a few tree lined straight Roman roads amidst rolling fields, capture the look straight away.
      Thanks again.

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  6. Absolutely awesome travelogue - truly inspirational!
    Now to convince the better half that we too need a road trip in France.....

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    1. Hi Nigel, thank you. Well if you have to do some persuading, just remember there are a lost worst places you could tour the odd battlefield than this part of France. We are right in the heart of Champaign and Brie Cheese country, and the weather has been hot and sunny with occasional liquid sun.

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  7. An excellent post! We've just replayed Montmirail, and it's a great pleasure to look at your fantastic pictures!

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    1. Cheers Phil, we've had a great two weeks in your lovely country. Back to work on Monday!

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  8. What a fantastic trip you are having (had)! The reports and photos of the battlefields are great! Thanks.

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    1. Hi James, thank you. We have had a great two weeks and I am now back in Blighty driving back to Devon today with hurricane Bertha about to work its way across the country, should be fun.

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