Battle of Craonne

Battle of Craonne
Part of the War of the Sixth Coalition
Battles of Laon and Craonne map.jpg
Map of the battle (lower-right corner)
Date 7 March 1814
Location Craonne, France
Result French victory
Belligerents
France French Empire Kingdom of Prussia Kingdom of Prussia
Russia Russian Empire
Commanders and leaders
France Napoleon
France Michel Ney
France Étienne de Nansouty
Kingdom of Prussia Gebhard Blücher
Russia Mikhail Vorontsov
Strength
Overall: 48,000
Craonne: 23,000, 102 guns
Overall: 110,000
Craonne: 23,000, 96 guns
Casualties and losses
5,400–8,000 4,785–5,000

The Battle of Craonne (7 March 1814) saw an Imperial French army under Emperor Napoleon I oppose a combined army of Imperial Russians and Prussians led by Prussian Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher. The War of the Sixth Coalition engagement began when the bulk of Napoleon's army tried to drive Mikhail Semyonovich Vorontsov's 22,000 Russians off the Chemin des Dames plateau to the west of Craonne. After a bitter struggle, the Napoleon's attacks compelled Vorontsov's force to withdraw, but French casualties exceeded Russian losses. While the battle raged, Blücher's attempt to turn Napoleon's east flank ended in failure due to poor planning.

In late February 1814, Blücher's army separated from the main Allied army of Austrian Field Marshal Karl Philipp, Prince of Schwarzenberg, moving northwest and making a dash at Paris. Napoleon left Marshal Jacques MacDonald with one army to observe Schwarzenberg and started after Blücher with another army. Blücher evaded Napoleon's attempt to trap him and retreated north toward Laon, picking up reinforcements as he went. Russian forces under Ferdinand von Wintzingerode and a Prussian corps led by Friedrich Wilhelm Freiherr von Bülow would soon give Blücher a huge numerical advantage over the French. Napoleon came into contact with Vorontsov's corps on the evening of 6 March, believing that he had Blücher on the run. The next contest would be the Battle of Laon on 9–10 March.

Craonne is located 25 kilometres (16 mi) southeast of Laon and about 90 kilometres (56 mi) northeast of Paris. [1]

Background

Operations

On 22 February 1814, Schwarzenberg with nearly 150,000 Allied troops faced Napoleon with half that number at Troyes. Because bad news arrived from the south and the Allied army was poorly supplied, but mainly because he believed that he was outnumbered, Schwarzenberg ordered a retreat that evening. Disappointed that no battle was going to be fought, Blücher proposed that his army separate from the main army and operate to the north. To this Schwarzenberg agreed and Blücher's 53,000 soldiers began moving northwest. [2] When he realized that the Prussian field marshal's army was headed for Paris, Napoleon left 42,000 troops under Marshal Jacques MacDonald to contain Schwarzenberg and marched after Blücher with 35,000 men. An additional 10,000 soldiers under Marshals Auguste de Marmont and Édouard Mortier stood between the Prussian field marshal and Paris. [3]

Marmont and Mortier blocked Blücher's advance on 28 February when they defeated Friedrich von Kleist's corps [4] in the Battle of Gué-à-Tresmes. [5] The following day, Blücher again failed to push the reinforced French out of his path, but time had run out. On 2 March the Prussian field marshal realized that Napoleon was following him and decided to retreat to the north bank of the Ourcq River. He knew that Wintzingerode's Russians and Bülow's Prussians were nearby and hoped to join them soon. [6] The premature surrender of Soissons allowed Blücher to more easily cross to the north bank of the Aisne River on 3–4 March. [7] By this time Napoleon knew that Wintzingerode had joined Blücher, giving him at least 70,000 men to oppose 48,000 French troops. However, the French emperor believed that Bülow was still well to the north near Avesnes-sur-Helpe. [8]

Pre-battle maneuvers

In fact, Blücher may have had as many as 110,000 troops by this time. They were distributed as follows – Russians: Wintzingerode (30,000), Louis Alexandre Andrault de Langeron (26,000), Fabian Gottlieb von Osten-Sacken (13,700); Prussians: Bülow (16,900), Kleist (10,600), Ludwig Yorck von Wartenburg (13,500). For his part, Napoleon had 34,233 troops on 2 March while Marmont and Mortier had been reinforced to 17,000 men but lost possibly 3,000 casualties in the week before Craonne. Yet, Napoleon hoped to get to Laon before Blücher's army arrived there. [9] On 5 March, Napoleon was at Fismes from where he hoped to move straight north to Laon. Since he lacked a pontoon bridge to cross the Aisne, the French emperor directed his forces to move northeast to Berry-au-Bac where there was a stone bridge. Berry-au-Bac was on the direct road from Reims to Laon. [10] On this day, Napoleon ordered Jan Willem Janssens at Mézières to gather up the Ardennes garrisons and operate in Blücher's rear areas. [11] Janssens promptly obeyed and the movements of his troops threw a scare into the Allies. [12]

At 5:00 am on 5 March, Guard cavalry divisions under Pierre David de Colbert-Chabanais and Louis Marie Levesque de Laferrière surprised and captured Reims and its Allied garrison. [13] Napoleon ordered Étienne Marie Antoine Champion de Nansouty to seize Berry-au-Bac with a cavalry force consisting of Rémi Joseph Isidore Exelmans' division and Louis Michel Pac's brigade. Nansouty's troopers overran some Russian cavalry and captured 200 men and two guns, but the main prize was their seizure of the bridge. Louis Friant's 1st Old Guard Division and Claude Marie Meunier's 1st Young Guard Division crossed and occupied positions as far north as Corbeny. [12] From 3:00–6:00 pm on 5 March, Marmont and Mortier tried to capture Soissons from its Russian garrison, but were repulsed. The Russians sustained 1,056 casualties, [13] while the French lost 800–900 men. [12] Another source calculated French losses as 1,500 men. [10]

Blücher realized that Napoleon was trying to reach Laon by the Reims road. He sent Bülow and his wagon trains back to Laon. The Prussian commander began to shift his other forces to the northeast. By 6 March Napoleon had 30,500 men near Berry-au-Bac. He planned to send an advanced guard north toward Festieux, but needed to make sure of Blücher's intentions. [14] During the day of 6 March, Meunier's division encountered Russian forces near Vauclair Abbey (Vauclerc) while two battalions of the Old Guard were needed to flush out Craonne's Russian defenders. [15] At first Blücher directed his army to concentrate near Craonne, but he decided that position was too cramped for his 90,000 men. He also heard that French cavalry were advancing north on the Reims road. Changing plans, Blücher planned to assemble 10,000 cavalry and 60 horse artillery guns under Wintzingerode and send it toward Festieux. [16] Wintzingerode's force consisted of 5,500 of his own horsemen plus all of the reserve cavalry belonging to Langeron and Yorck. Blücher ordered Wintzingerode's infantry, commanded by Vorontsov, to remain behind and directly oppose Napoleon's army. [17]

Allied corps commanders

French corps commanders