The Battle of Wavre
If we start from the situation at midday on the 17th—namely that nothing significant had been done by way of pursuing the Prussians and that the direction of their retreat was not known but was assumed to be toward Gembloux and Namur, thus towards the Meuse, and also that it was only at midday that Grouchy was finally allowed to depart, with very general instructions from Bonaparte to stay on the heels of the Prussians—then we cannot actually find it surprising that this marshal did not think of heading for the Dyle and going down this river, either on its right bank or, as would have been even better, the left. The most one could have expected was that he would send a considerable detachment, around one division of infantry and cavalry, toward Mont-Saint-Guibert in order to maintain some sort of contact with Bonaparte. But the French were never wasteful in dividing their forces. Their system was to concentrate everything at one spot and to make only the most necessary detachments. Furthermore, their attention was focused on the Meuse, and that made the Dyle uninteresting. We thus do not find it remarkable that Grouchy pursued Blücher by way of Gembloux—or at least thought he was pursuing him—and turned to the Dyle only when the Prussian trail led him there.
But as soon as he learned that Blücher had turned to the Dyle, which happened during the night of the 17th in Gembloux, then his innermost thoughts should have been that this could only be happening in order to regain contact with Wellington, for one does not leave one's natural line of retreat without reason. From that moment onward, Grouchy should have taken for granted that his mission was not to follow on the heels of Blücher's rear guard but to place his force between Blücher and Bonaparte in order to get ahead of Blücher, in case the latter marched to his right. Accordingly, Grouchy should have taken the shortest route possible from Gembloux toward the Dyle, thus via Mont-Saint-Guibert, in order either to drive away the Prussian corps that might be in this area or to take up a position himself along the left bank if it was still unoccupied, and thus hold the corps at Wavre in check. This seems to us to be the conclusion that Grouchy could have drawn through a simple and natural consideration of his position, and this consideration—not the cannon fire of Belle Alliance—should have turned him away from the direction he was taking and brought him to the upper Dyle.
Bonaparte and many others have criticized Marshal Grouchy for not listening to the advice of Exelmans and Gérard, who drew his attention to the fearsome cannonade of the main army and urged him to set forth immediately in that direction. In this respect reference is often made to the principle hastily fabricated by Rogniat, that the commander of a detached column should always head in the direction where heavy firing signifies the crisis of a decisive battle. But this principle can only apply in cases in which circumstances have placed the commander of a detached column in an uncertain position, in which the clarity and precision of his original task becomes lost amidst uncertainty and overtaken by events, as so often happens in war. Instead of remaining inactive or marching around without a definite aim, it is clearly better for such a commander to hurry to the aid of his neighbor when heavy firing suggests that he is in need. But to demand of Marshal Grouchy that he should have taken no further notice of Blücher, but instead should have marched to where another part of the army was fighting a battle against a different enemy, would have been contrary to all theory and experience. That General Gérard actually gave this advice at noon on the 18th at Sart à Walhain proves only that he who does not bear the responsibility for a decision should not be too emphatic in formulating it.
Grouchy for his part never seems to have realized that Blücher's move toward Wavre actually altered his own mission. Instead, without giving it much thought, he headed his whole corps along a single road toward Wavre with the intention of attacking his opponent and pinning him down. If he had been as strong as Blücher, then we could accept this plan, but trying to pin down an enemy who is three times stronger by means of a simple frontal attack is an impossible task.
Even if Marshal Grouchy intended to carry out such a frontal attack, he should have divided his forces coming out of Gembloux and sent the greater portion to look for a crossing over the Dyle upriver from Wavre, which would have led him to Limale. How could he expect to force his way through Blücher by heading right up the main road? Even if he did not know that the Dyle was an excellent defensive position in the Wavre area, he could still have seen from the map that a numerically superior enemy could cause him a lot of difficulty there, and that an envelopment would therefore be necessary. Such an envelopment could naturally take place only on the left, because that way he would move closer to the main [French] army.
That the attacks on Wavre and Bierge were not more successful is sometimes attributed to a lack of energy, but it should be remarked that Vandamme and Gérard were not the ones who were lacking in that respect; that in addition to Gérard several other generals were wounded; and that Grouchy even placed himself at the head of a battalion at Bierge. If mistakes were made in these attacks, they were due more to clumsiness than to lack of effort. In order to make a decisive attack on Thielmann the French had to cross the Dyle in 5 or 6 places, partly over bridges and partly by wading, and then storm the heights. This was certainly not easy, as one can scarcely imagine a stronger position than Thielmann's.
Admittedly Grouchy could have done more damage to General Thielmann on the 19th if he had made use of his superiority in cavalry (5,000 men versus 2,000). But he already sensed the uncertain nature of his situation in his bones, and this was hampering his actions. Finally we come to the question of whether Grouchy could have prevented Bonaparte's defeat by appearing at Saint-Lambert. We do not think so, but believe instead that he too would have been drawn into the maelstrom, that the success of the Allies would thus have been noticeably greater, since Grouchy’s force would not have made it back to Paris in such strength and good order. No matter where Grouchy was located on the left bank of the Dyle at midday on the 18th, and no matter how he employed his forces against Blücher, he would have tied down two Prussian corps at best, and the other two would have been able to march to the battle of Belle Alliance. These would have sufficed to decide that battle, for when we look at what Prussian forces actually fought there, it was scarcely two entire corps.
It is not even likely that Bonaparte himself would have been able to reach Grouchy's troops on the evening of the 18th, so that in all probability his personal fate would have been the same as it actually was.
A Second Battle against Blücher
One key strategic question remains, and that is whether on the 17th it might have been better for Bonaparte to pursue Blücher with his main army, either to force him into flight and confusion by means of an energetic pursuit, thus driving him back across the Meuse; or—if Blücher dared to risk a second battle on the 17th or 18th—to inflict a total defeat upon him?
To be sure, it is one of the most important and most effective principles of strategy to exploit success in battle as quickly and thoroughly as circumstances permit, since all efforts made while an opponent is in a crisis will have much greater impact than otherwise. It is thus a misuse of forces to pass up such a favorable opportunity. Furthermore, employing the remaining superiority in numbers at another location leads to a loss of time and effort on the march, which, if the situation does not absolutely require this different deployment, truly appears to be an unnecessary expense.
Moreover, it is a great strategic maxim that, when a major decision is at stake, the greatest priority must be the destruction of the enemy force. The more decisive the battle, the more important this goal is, and the more this is the case, the less important is the location where the destruction takes place. Wherever the destruction can be the greatest is thus the most effective location. Naturally, certain factors can still have a noticeable impact, such as the reputation of the commander and the army, the closeness of the capital city, relations with Allies and so on. All these and similar matters must be considered as secondary factors, but military theory must rightfully consider the destruction of the armed forces as the main goal.
From this standpoint it seems to us that Bonaparte’s main objective had to be to render ineffective as many of the 215,000 men facing him as possible, and it made almost no difference if this took place against Blücher or Wellington or both. While we freely admit that the psychological impact of the overall victory would have been greater if Wellington's unblemished fame and the reputation of the English troops had been destroyed at the same time, this is just a minor nuance that cannot be considered significant when compared to the possibility of a much greater destruction of the Allied forces.
We therefore believe that if Bonaparte was in a position to make a second victory more likely and more consequential by means of a second battle with Blücher rather than Wellington, he must unquestionably choose the former. By seeking a second victory, he would not have lost some of the fruits due to him from the first victory. Pursuing Blücher and seeking out a second battle would have been one and the same action. The first and second victories would have united into a greater whole and given a much greater result than two separate battles against different opponents, just like two flames give a much greater glow when they are united.
But was it certain that Blücher could have been forced into a second battle? At least as certain, if not more so than forcing battle against Wellington, since an army that has not yet been thrown off balance can withdraw without suffering serious consequences and thus gain time, but a defeated army cannot do that. If the pursuer presses it too heavily, it must decide to resist, or it will be caught up in a rout with heavy casualties and the loss of its honor. This moral aspect of victory should not be underestimated.
In this connection we want to suggest that if Blücher had wanted to avoid a second battle and had withdrawn back to the Meuse, a vigorous pursuit by Bonaparte would have resulted in full—or certainly partial—compensation for having missed the chance for a second victory. If this had happened—if Bonaparte had driven Blücher back 50 or 75 miles—he still would have had the opportunity to do what he did on the 17th: turn with his main force against Wellington.
What would Wellington have been able to do in the meantime? We think he would more likely have moved backwards than forwards, but we want to consider the most favorable case, namely that he inflicted a complete defeat on Marshal Ney and drove him across the Sambre. Even so, it must be admitted that one cannot gain the same advantages against 40,000 opponents as against 115,000. Every trophy that Wellington won would have been paid for three times over by Blücher. To be sure, there would have been no doubt of a victory by Wellington over Ney, while one by Bonaparte over Blücher was not so certain; but Bonaparte's position was such that when he had to choose between a greater probability of success or more decisive results in the event of success, he always had to choose the latter. Commanders who conduct campaigns against evenly matched forces, and who neither fear the worst nor seek the greatest result, can choose the lesser but more certain success. Such caution would have led Bonaparte into the abyss.
Thus if the second of the basic principles we spelled out at the beginning is correct—that in cases where interests clash violently and great decisions are at stake, the destruction of the enemy's forces is the main objective, so that the effects of all geographic and geometric considerations are overwhelmed and swept aside—then whatever apparent advantages the Allied armies may have derived from their relationship to their bases and to [other] geographic points in the area cannot be taken into consideration.
If, for example, Wellington throws Ney back past Charleroi, he stands in Bonaparte's rear and cuts his lines of communication. This would have an impact if Bonaparte wanted or needed to stay in that position, or if Charleroi were Paris; but why should a commander in the full flush of victory be concerned if he loses his line of communications for a week? What prevents Bonaparte from establishing a new one via Huy and Dinant, so as to have a line of retreat in an emergency? And if Bonaparte now turns and heads toward Wellington or Brussels, then that general must undoubtedly return there post-haste. Wellington’s greater dependency on his lines of communications lay not in the [geometric] relationship of the opposing lines of communication, nor in the more substantial base of operations enjoyed by Bonaparte, but in the most general features of their positions and in the specific details of their personal situations. That which Bonaparte could risk—because he was his own master—and that which he had to risk—because only by taking great risks could he retain power—could never have been considered by a responsible subordinate commander like Wellington. The result is that if Bonaparte had maintained an unrelenting pursuit of Blücher, he would have been sure of a ripe harvest of victory that outweighed whatever he might lose in his rear, and that a single thrust toward Brussels would have brought the Duke of Wellington recoiling back there like a spring, which would have opened the way for another victory by Bonaparte.
We have assumed here a retreat by Blücher toward the Meuse, because this is what Bonaparte assumed, and he therefore based his decisions on this view. Furthermore, this situation always had to be taken into consideration. Now we come to the case that actually occurred, namely that Blücher went to the Dyle with the intention of uniting with Wellington.
Once such a union after the first battle is included in the list of possible combinations, it obviously makes no difference, either to the likelihood or the extent of success by Bonaparte, whether this union took place at Wavre or Belle Alliance. Everything depended on the single question whether such a union was more to be feared if Bonaparte sought his second battle against Blücher, or against Wellington. We are fully convinced that the latter was the case.
Blücher's ability to reassemble his forces on the 17th, and establish a sufficiently firm footing that he could accept battle at Wavre on the 18th, resulted from the mistakes, failures, omissions, caution, and inadequate forces of his pursuer, Grouchy. If Bonaparte had followed with the main army, he would have been ready to fight at Wavre early on the 18th, and it is doubtful whether Blücher would have been in a position to accept a battle at that time and place, and even more doubtful that Wellington could have rushed over in time.
We do not want to get ourselves lost in examining every possibility that could have thereby occurred, but simply want to emphasize that a second battle could have occurred much earlier against Blücher than against Wellington, because no change of direction would have been necessary and because Wellington—out of uncertainty about what had happened and what was going to happen to Blücher—would have been much less able to make a decision to aid Blücher than could Blücher to aid Wellington. Blücher knew his own situation precisely and knew that Wellington's forces were intact, but Wellington knew only his own situation and nothing about Blücher’s. Bonaparte let go of Blücher too soon, which was consistent with his frequent tendency to underestimate his opponents and overrate himself. Furthermore, the thought of gaining Brussels quickly attracted him. He made the same mistake in 1813 at the Battle of Dresden and in 1814 after the battles on the Marne. In the former case he should have pursued the Allied army past Prague, and in the latter he should have ruthlessly pushed Blücher back to the Rhine. There is almost no doubt that in both instances his momentum would have pulled the whole force of events with him, and caused a complete reversal of the overall situation.
In all three cases Bonaparte—who was used to seeing defeated opponents flee far away or waver indecisively like Beaulieu after the battle of Montenotte—did not believe that his beaten foe was capable of turning and standing firm so soon. This resulted from his characteristic underestimation of his opponents.
This seems more like a mistake than a fundamental error. But we maintain that in all three cases changing direction undermined the whole result, and that the reasons for these changes were not strong enough to justify deviating from the general principle of our theory. For this reason we must consider it to be a true error.
But even if after reviewing the whole series of events we now believe that this was clearly an error by Bonaparte, a deviation from the law that had heretofore directed his meteoric path, we do not think it would have been easy to avoid. The decision to ignore Blücher on the Elbe [in 1813], Schwarzenberg on the Seine [in 1814], or Wellington on the Sambre [in 1815] would have been enormous for a general in ordinary circumstances or possessing a normal amount of willpower. But the enormousness comes not from theory but from the mission, from Bonaparte's situation and his goal. Strategy is like the art of perspective, in that the standpoint of the viewer determines the position of every line. If an object appears enormous, it is either because the draftsman’s eye is not yet accustomed to it, or because the natural proportions have been transgressed, and a task bordering on the impossible has been selected.
Consequences of the Battle
The French calculate their losses in the Battle of Belle Alliance at 25,000 men including 6,000 prisoners, and their total losses for all five days at 41,000 men. If you include just dead, wounded, and prisoners taken on the field of battle, these figures are not too low, but it would be a great mistake to assume that of the 115,000 men who, according to the French, marched off to this campaign, 74,000 remained. The extent of a victory, that is to say, the destructive effects which it inflicts on the enemy army, can naturally have countless gradations, but among these there is one major dividing line: when the defeated army is no longer capable of forming a rear guard in order to slow down and control the victorious pursuer. Then the retreat is truly flight, everything is in dissolution, and the army for the moment must be considered destroyed. Prince Hohenlohe at Jena and Bonaparte at Belle Alliance are examples of this. Such success must always result when the individual who has seen the tide of victory turning against him tries to force a turnaround with a final sacrifice, thus using up the reserve that could have formed the rear guard. This is what Bonaparte did with the last eight battalions of the Imperial Guard. The extent to which an army can regroup following such a total dissolution naturally varies greatly according to the circumstances. The time of day when the battle ends, the area and terrain where it is fought, the morale of the army, the political situation of the people and the government—these things all play a role. In his Mémoires de St. Hélène Bonaparte claims that 25,000 men of the defeated army were reassembled at Laon. This was not impossible, but there is a big difference between possibility and realistic probability.
The battle ended at nightfall. The result was that on the one side the confusion and dissolution became even greater. It might have been possible for Bonaparte to form a rear guard of 10 or 15,000 men and thus stage some sort of a retreat instead of flight, if darkness had not made his personal intervention impossible. On the other hand, it is also certain that the night made the flight of individuals easier and that a few more hours of daylight on the 18th would have greatly increased the numbers of prisoners taken. Under the cover of darkness, everyone who could move could save himself. It is well known from the Memoires de Chaboulon that Bonaparte passed through Charleroi between 4 and 5 a.m. on the 19th and tried in vain to halt the fleeing troops there and restore order. He then continued his flight toward Philippeville. Charleroi is around 15 miles from the battlefield, so whoever was already in Charleroi at this time must have been running all the way.
Fugitives had already reached Philippeville on the 19th, and they were equally incapable of resistance, so Bonaparte hurried that same day toward Laon. What is truly revealing is that in Laon, most likely on the morning of the 21st, thus around 60 hours after the end of the battle and ninety miles from the battlefield, Bonaparte received a report that a considerable body of troops was approaching. He sent his adjutant to see who it was, and it was his brother Jerome with the generals Soult, Morand, Colbert, Petit, and Poret de Morvan, who were arriving with around 3,000 infantrymen and cavalrymen they had gathered together. Regardless of how much respect one may have for the French army, this can only be called complete dissolution, a flight without equal.
It was Jerome, however, who had been designated by Bonaparte to collect the army at Avesnes, and of whom Bonaparte said in his Memoirs that he had already assembled 25,000 men there on the 21st. Bonaparte also has Jerome bringing 50 cannon back with him, but it is well known that all of the 240 guns comprising the French artillery had been captured either on the battlefield or during the retreat.
As the pursuing Prussian corps advanced beyond the Oise down the road from Soissons to Paris, they encountered Grouchy on the 28th. For several days a few weak remnants of the defeated army had flitted past them like shadows, so it is certain that there was no organized body of 25,000 men assembled in either Laon or Soissons, and that those troops who were there did not unite with Grouchy but fled to Paris before he arrived. Grouchy himself speaks in his reports to the government commission about the low morale and disaffection of the army.
The strength of the army at Paris also proves this. Not counting the National Guard, this army had 60,000 men, of whom 19,000 had come from the depots, so only 40,000 could have been from the main army and of these, around 25,000 had come with Grouchy, so the remaining 15,000 must have been the residue of the army that had been defeated at Belle Alliance. It is thus clear that between the battlefield and Paris this army had disappeared as a factor in the course of events.
Strategically, a victory of this scale has to be regarded as in a class by itself, deriving from exceptional circumstances and leading to results of a most exceptional kind. As for the causes that led to it, they are mainly as follows:
1. The extreme effort that the French army had already made by the time the victory was decided. The more exhausted the forces are before the decisive blow in a battle occurs, the more effective and consequential this blow will be. In this case, as we have already said, the exhaustion of French forces had been taken to the limit, if not beyond it, because Bonaparte had recklessly thrown his last reserves, which should have been his rear guard, into the destruction of the firefight, as he had already done with the entire cavalry. The use of the last reserves can be forgiven, or can even be quite natural, in a battle whose outcome remains in the balance until the last moment; but not when the scales have already tipped so heavily in favor of the opponent. In that case [such a move] can only be regarded as contemptible foolhardiness, lacking the wisdom of the true commander.
2. Nightfall, which made it impossible to control the increasing chaos.
3. The outflanking form of the Prussian attack.
4. The great numerical superiority of the Allies.
5. The very energetic pursuit.
6. Finally, the influence of all the political elements, which more or less permeate every war, but which naturally imposed themselves even more strongly in this one and proved to be liabilities of the worst kind.
The less the preparations for a decisive event are firmly grounded in the natural conditions and interests of the people, and the more they are artificially inflated, based on luck, and undertaken in the spirit of bold risk-taking, the more destructive will be the impact of an unfavorable outcome that releases all these tensions.
All of these circumstances have contributed to the magnitude of the victory in the present case, and we are only justified in setting our sights so high when several of them are in our favor.
As to the consequences that follow from the destruction of an entire army, they generally depend primarily on political factors, the condition of the people and the government, the relationships with other peoples, and so forth, just as the strengths and actions, means and ends of strategy move ever deeper into the realm of politics in accordance with their size and scope; for war can never be seen as an independent matter, but only as a modification of political relationships, as the implementation of political plans and interests via the domain of battle.
There was never any doubt that such a victory in the present case would lead directly to Paris, and to peace. Prior to Paris, resistance was out of the question, because no enemy force of any importance could be fielded. Even in Paris itself, resistance was quite unlikely, because the defense of such a large city is always very difficult, although not impossible, and it requires more favorable conditions than were at hand in this case. Even if the forces available in Paris had sufficed for the moment to secure the city against Blücher and Wellington, the rest of the inadequately defended country stood open to the other Allied armies. These armies would appear in front of the capital after a few weeks, having conquered half of France on the way. How could a population riven by political factions have offered resistance under such circumstances, and would not this impossibility have given the first impetus to internal reaction in Paris itself?
All that Bonaparte and his supporters have said about the great forces that were still available, about the possibility—yes, even the ease—of continued resistance, is mere blather. In placing the loss of 40,000 men into a simple mathematical relationship to the initial forces, they want to give the impression that this was an insignificant portion of the whole, but even they do not have the courage to state this laughable argument openly. It is not 40,000 men that France lost on the fields of Ligny and Belle Alliance; it was an army of 80,000 that was destroyed. This army was the cornerstone of the entire defense structure, on which everything depended, in which all security lay and where every hope was rooted. The army was destroyed, and the commander who led it, in whose miraculous abilities half of France believed with an enthusiasm bordering on superstition, the great magician was—as he himself said of Blücher at Ligny—caught en flagrant délit. Thus all trust in the mind that was directing everything collapsed along with the military structure that was supposed to protect France's borders.
For these reasons no victory has ever had greater psychological power than this one, and what was accomplished by this power—the sudden overthrow of the huge faction that had formed against the Bourbons, plus the exile of Bonaparte, who was still worshipped by half of France—is therefore not remarkable and cannot be attributed to the actions of individuals. Indeed, it would have been almost a miracle if things had turned out otherwise.
The full extent of this victory was already clear to the two Allied commanders on the day after the battle, because trophies of victory comprising 240 guns (their entire artillery park), plus all the field equipment of the enemy commander-in-chief, leave nothing to be desired. They are the unmistakable sign of an army that has been totally destroyed and driven from the field.
The March on Paris: Initial Pursuit
The Allied commanders thus clearly understood that they would encounter no opposition before Paris, and that if the enemy could actually meet them again on anything like equal terms there, the rapid approach of the other Allied armies would make a real setback difficult in any case. The march on Paris was thus legitimate, and in strategy whatever is legitimate must be done. Only this march made proper use of the brilliant victory, and was worthy of it and of the two commanders and the fame of their arms. Any lesser venture would have left the circle of victory incomplete and been a true waste of energy, because the fruits for which the price had been paid at Ligny and Belle Alliance would not have been harvested.
Since the Allies advanced on Paris as quickly as possible, they continued to pursue the beaten enemy up to the walls of the city, took new prisoners, and were hopeful of driving isolated units away from this central point of enemy power, shattering all organized resistance up to there, and bringing about terror, confusion, and disunity in Paris itself. If they brought in no appreciable number of new prisoners, if no enemy forces were driven off, if the catastrophe of Bonaparte's fall took place before the Allied advance on Paris was known in the capital, these intentions remain no less valid from the point of view of Blücher and Wellington, for in war we can never know in advance exactly how events will unfold. But the rapid march on Paris nevertheless hastened the end of the whole drama by depriving the republican party, which was again starting to stir, of the time and energy necessary even to attempt to reconstitute itself.
If we here give such precise reasons for the march on Paris, it is not because it requires justification. There can be no question of that, since it involved no danger, and that being so the honor of arms alone would already be sufficient reason. Rather, we dwell on it to draw attention to how, in the conduct of war, all the likely consequences of an event have to be thought through and brought into consideration, and that in this respect the ceaseless advance on Paris appears to the critic as an absolutely essential component of this campaign.
The two Allied commanders agreed on the battlefield itself that the Prussian army would undertake the subsequent pursuit, because it was less strained and weakened by the battle, and because it was further forward owing to the nature of its attack. It was also agreed that the Prussian army should strike out along the road through Charleroi to Avesnes, thus toward Laon, the other Allies on the road through Nivelles and Binche toward Péronne.
The English army thus remained on the battlefield, while most of the Prussians were on the march. The 4th Corps was in the lead. Lieutenant General von Gneisenau placed himself at the head of its most forward troops and urged on the pursuit throughout the night. He had the drums beat incessantly, so that this sign of approach would alarm the fleeing enemy from all sides, frighten them out of their bivouacs, and keep them constantly on the run.
Bonaparte had left the battlefield with a small entourage, and initially thought of remaining at Quatre-Bras and of drawing Girard's division to him. This was supposed to be the first way-station on the retreat, the first concentration point. But Girard's division was nowhere to be found, and the terrifying drumbeat of the Prussians drove everything onward without rest to the Sambre.
At daybreak the mass of fugitives reached this river at Charleroi, Marchiennes, and Châtelet, but there too no pause was possible. The Prussian advance guard, which had pressed forward to Gosselies, sent its cavalry to the Sambre, and the fleeing army continued on toward Beaumont and Philippeville.
In all probability this energetic initial pursuit is responsible for a large part of the overall success. The flight, the disorder, the demoralization, and thus the dispersal of the army were all heightened by it. It is well known that the majority of the captured artillery was found on the roads used in the retreat, because in the haste and confusion of flight they were all jammed and jumbled together in the defiles, for instance at the bridge over the Dyle in Genappe, so that the artillerymen, convinced of the impossibility of saving their weapons, simply set the horses free in order to escape on them. The rich and brilliant trophies of the imperial carriage, for which Bonaparte was so reluctant to answer, were also due only to this fortunate idea of pursuit. If we call it that, it is not because pursuit following a victorious battle is not basically natural in itself, and necessary in all circumstances, but rather because ordinarily [even] the best of wills gets stuck in a thousand problems and points of friction in the machinery. In the present case the enormous exertions of the Prussian troops prior to the victory made the execution of the [pursuit] so difficult that in the end the force with which General Gneisenau pressed on so relentlessly was really nothing more than a fusilier battalion and its tireless drummer, whom the general had put on one of Bonaparte's coach horses.
This is striking proof, not to mention a most vivid image, of the enormously different effects that identical expenditures of energy can have in war.
An army like the French, glorified by a string of victories over more than twenty years, which originally displayed the compact structure, the indestructibility, and, one could even say, the brilliance of a gem, whose courage and order were not dissolved or dissipated by mere danger in the blazing fire of battle, such an army, if the ennobling forces that gave it its crystalline structure are broken—its faith in its commander, in itself, and the sacred discipline of service—such an army flies in breathless terror before the sound of a drum, before a threat from its opponent that bordered on a joke.
In the conduct of war it is a great thing to correctly evaluate the innumerable gradations that lie between these two extremes; it is a matter of individual, intuitive judgment, which can be inborn, but which, more than any other quality of a commander, can also be cultivated through experience, that is, through practice. Only to the extent that we allow ourselves to be led by this intuition will we always find the right degree of effort to make in war—and indeed in great things no less than small, in the conduct of a campaign as of a patrol—so that no opportunities are missed on the one hand, nor effort wasted on the other.
Let us return now to the battlefield, to examine the relationship of the opposing forces more clearly. Prince Blücher's dispositions on the evening of the 18th were as follows:
a) the 4th Corps was in pursuit of the enemy so that he could not pause and regroup;
b) the 2nd Corps was cutting off Marshal Grouchy;
c) the 1st Corps was following the 4th in support.
Had Prince Blücher known Grouchy's strength on the evening of the 18th, he could rightly be criticized for not giving the 1st Corps the same orders as the 2nd. For since Grouchy had some 30,000 men, and since it really was a question of cutting him off, it can well be argued that 20,000 men (the 2nd Corps would still have been about this strong if it was all together) were not enough. To be sure, Thielmann also had about 20,000 men, only it was very uncertain whether these would be on hand at the moment when Grouchy, hastening to his rear, fell upon the 2nd Corps. But at that point Blücher thought Grouchy was only 12-15,000 men strong, because the last reports of General Thielmann suggested no more. For such a force the Prussian 2nd Corps would have been enough. Moreover, the prince did not actually think Grouchy's whole force would be captured; instead he probably thought General Pirch should simply attack from the rear and perhaps cut off one part or another, for it was naturally assumed that Grouchy had begun his retreat that night, and would have advanced too far for anyone to be able to get directly in front of him while still on the way to Namur.
Nevertheless, if we consider that at the end of the Battle of Belle Alliance Grouchy still had to retreat; that the only way he had across the Meuse was at Namur, and that there were certainly no pontoons around with which to build a bridge elsewhere; that if we took this spot away from him he had to force his way across the Sambre, where we could easily have had sufficient light troops to hold him back; that taking even 12-15,000 prisoners was a very important thing—then we cannot refrain from counting it as an error on the prince's part that he did not send the 2nd Corps down the same road to Namur. If Marshal Grouchy could be blocked anywhere, it naturally had to be easiest at the most distant point. There was nothing to fear except reaching too far, and that the enemy—having been informed of the loss of Namur—could turn toward the Sambre, but in that case we could have been ready to oppose him there. In the tumult at the close of a battle, with its hundred demands of the moment, all these things were not so clearly and carefully weighed and considered as they are so easily by us now, and the result was a half measure.
As a consequence of the dispositions described above, Prussian forces on the night of the 18th-19th were located as follows:
a) the 1st Corps north of Genappes;
b) the 2nd on the march from Planchenoit via Glabbaix la Hutte to Meilleraux;
c) the 3rd at Wavre;
d) the 4th between Genappe and Gosselies, with the advance guard at the latter place;
e) Wellington's army remained on the battlefield.
f) Blücher's headquarters was in Genappe.
g) Wellington's headquarters was in Mont-Saint-Jean.
h) The French army was in flight, crossing the Sambre at Charleroi, Châtelet and
Marchienne, partly on the road to Beaumont, partly to Philippeville.
i) Bonaparte in flight via Charleroi toward Philippeville; Grouchy at Wavre.
On the 19th Prince Blücher's orders for the day were as follows:
a) The 1st Corps was to advance to Charleroi and push its advance guard out to Marchiennes-au-pont.
b) The 2nd Corps was to march to Avesnes and push its advance guard out to the Sambre to cross it on the two bridges at Thuin and Lobbes. If the enemy wished to make a stand on the Sambre, the sluices [would] have to be opened so the water subsided, making the river fordable at several places. If the bridges at Lobbes and Thuin were destroyed, they would have to be rebuilt at once.
c) The 4th Corps was to advance this day toward Fontaine l'Evèque and immediately establish communications with Mons, etc.
We see from these orders that the only report the prince had from the 2nd Corps was that it was at Meillereaux but that it had heard nothing about the enemy; and that as a consequence he completely gave up the idea of that corps cutting off Grouchy, since he deployed it in a completely different direction. He could not have received a report from the 3rd Corps, since the enemy still stood in between.
Thus on the 19th, the day when the actual arrangements to cut off Grouchy would have had to have been made, Blücher believed [Grouchy had] already escaped, and he was all the more set on continuing his advance via Avesnes.
On the evening of the 19th the positions of the opposing armies were:
a) the 1st Corps at Charleroi, having completed a march of sixteen miles;
b) the 2nd Corps at Meillereaux, which it reached only toward midday;
c) the 3rd Corps at Saint-Achtenrode;
d) the 4th at Fontaine l'Evèque, having likewise marched sixteen miles.
e) the 5th brigade of the Second Corps, which was not with the Corps, at Anderlues, not far from Fontaine l'Evèque;
f) the English army in the vicinity of Nivelles;
g) Blücher's headquarters in Gosselies; Wellington's headquarters in Nivelles;
h) the French main army around Beaumont and Philippeville, some already moving toward Avesnes;
i) Bonaparte reached Philippeville at 10 a.m. and left there around 2 p.m. for Laon;
j) Grouchy was on the march from Wavre to Namur.
On the evening of the 20th:
a) the 1st Corps at Beaumont, after a march of eighteen miles;
b) the 4th Corps at Colleret, not far from Maubeuge, after a march of sixteen miles;
c) the 5th Brigade surrounding Maubeuge;
d) the 2nd Corps at Namur;
e) the 3rd at Gembloux and Namur;
f) the Allied army in the vicinity of Binche;
g) Prince Blücher's headquarters at Merbe le Chateau
h) Wellington's headquarters at Binche;
i) the main French army partly at Avesnes, partly further to the rear;
j) Bonaparte in Laon;
k) Grouchy in Dinant.
On the evening of the 21st:
a) the 1st Corps surrounded and bombarded Avesnes;
b) the 4th Corps between Avesnes and Landrecy, surrounding the latter place;
c) the 2nd Corps at Thuin;
d) the 3rd at Charleroi.
e) The Allied army between Mons and Valenciennes.
f) Blücher's headquarters at Nogelle sur Sambre.
g) Wellington's headquarters at Malplaquet.
h) The defeated [French] army begins to assemble at Laon and Marle.
i) Bonaparte arrives in Paris, where he will be forced to abdicate the following day.
j) Grouchy at Philippeville.
On the 21st General Ziethen had a battery of six ten-pounders, four seven-pound howitzers, and eight twelve-pounders drawn up within six hundred paces of Avesnes, and began the bombardment with it.
The force occupying the fortress consisted of 1,700 national guardsmen and 200 veterans. The initial fire achieved little, but when it began again that night, a ten-pound shell from the fourteenth volley fell in the fort's main powder magazine, blew it into the air, and laid waste to a large part of the town; whereupon its occupation followed on the 22nd.
The March on Paris: Critical Comment
We have followed the movements on the first three days following the battle rather closely in order to make the actual results of that catastrophe clear. After these three days the direct consequences of the victory had come to an end, the defeated army had gained the necessary head start, Grouchy had successfully avoided being cut off and had directed the rest of his retreat down the highway to Rheims. Now we simply want to have the general situation in view, so we will content ourselves with describing only the main lines of the marches.
The Allied commanders knew the enemy had made Laon the main focus of his retreat and his assembly area. Now, what the enemy could deploy there was scarcely capable of mounting significant resistance or even of making a second decisive battle necessary, but it could still hamper the march of the Allies through rear guard actions and force them into circuitous marches. The Allied commanders therefore decided to proceed not toward Laon but along the right bank of the Oise, so as to cross this river between Soissons and Paris, roughly at Compiègne and Pont-Saint-Maxence. They hoped in this way to gain the following advantages:
1. To induce the enemy force, since it would not be pressed, to stay in place for a while and so perhaps get a head start on it toward Paris.
2. To be able to march unhindered, without expending a lot of effort on tactical precautions, and therefore faster.
3. To march in an area not already traversed by the retreating army, which was thus generally fresher and also somewhat better in itself, and so make the march easier for their own troops; a very important consideration because their earlier exertions had been so exceptional, and one certainly ought not to arrive at Paris unduly weak.
Since the diversion that the closest Allied column had to make involved only about a day's march, namely the piece of road it had to cover to reach the Soissons-Paris road again, and since there was no doubt that this diversion would easily be made up by the undisturbed advance later on, this plan, which presented itself so naturally, cannot be rejected out of hand. But if we consider the matter closely, the following questions arise:
1. Is it perhaps a mistake to think that a totally unpursued enemy would retreat more slowly? At first he might be tempted to ease up some, but a lateral march occurring so near to him would become known soon, and then he would make it the yardstick for his own movement.
Now it is obvious that a march without rear guard actions can be much faster, for the rear guard's movements in the face of the enemy have to be made while expending a lot of incidental tactical effort, by which its retreat must be greatly delayed; but you cannot leave your rear guard in the lurch all the time, so its delays are inevitably shared by the whole army.
Prince Blücher had actually decided to have twelve squadrons under Lieutenant Colonel Sohr, which were supposed to be his advance guard, follow the enemy down the road to Laon; but these few cavalrymen were not sufficient for tying down the enemy columns very often or for long. It would thus have been better, for the purpose of outflanking the enemy and pushing him away from Paris, if the most forward corps, that is, the 1st, had remained on the Laon highway and kept steady pressure on the enemy rear guard, while the 3rd and 4th Corps proceeded along the right bank of the Oise.
There is no denying that in this way the 1st Corps would have been confronted with the possibility of fighting at a disadvantage, but this fighting would have been richly repaid by the lost time it would have cost the enemy. It was perhaps the only way to imagine him really being driven away from Paris.
2. Considering that on the morning of the 22nd Grouchy was still holding on at Namur, while Blücher had already reached the vicinity of Beaumont, we certainly think a direct advance along the road to Laon must have deflected Marshal Grouchy from there, as well as from Soissons, and consequently prevented him from uniting with the defeated army this side of Paris.
Now that in itself was not so important, but the main point would have been to cut Grouchy off from Paris, and this was still possible in the first instance only if he was already cut off from Soissons.
To tell the truth, it is never easy with a small head-start to cut someone off from a large city, least of all if the city lies on one or more rivers. This is the case with Paris. A glance at a map shows how the considerable extent of the city, the convergence of several excellent highways, and the way the countryside is cut up by the Marne and Seine, still provide means for a retreating force to reach the city, even if its opponent has gotten to the outskirts a day earlier, or even two, by the most direct route. To totally surround a city like Paris, and thereby keep your opponent away from it completely, requires several days and a very substantial force, which meant awaiting the arrival of all the other columns, since they cannot all arrive at the same moment by the same direct route.
The campaign of 1814 offers two examples of this kind. Marshals Mortier and Marmont, who were cut off by Yorck and Kleist on March 26 while on the road from La Ferté Gauche, reached Paris by way of the road from Provins; and Bonaparte himself could not have been cut off when he returned from his move toward Saint-Dizier, if the city had not already gone over to the Allies in the meantime.
It is thus very doubtful whether the Allies, had they been able to get in front of Grouchy at Soissons, would have been in a position to drive this general completely away from Paris; indeed we actually consider this most unlikely. It then came down to further maneuvering, i.e., a march to Meaux, then to Melun, and so forth.
But this much is certain: that if Grouchy could not be cut off from Paris before Soissons, it was even less possible to do so if he was allowed to reach that city. Consequently, the hope of driving the enemy force completely away from Paris by means of the flank march does not seem to rest on a really clear understanding of the situation.
But the less possible it seems to cut Grouchy's force off from Paris, the more important it becomes to take good care of one's own troops. So we can well say that on the whole the routes chosen for the march to Paris, even at present when all the circumstances are known, do not seem inappropriate.
Table of Marches
The following table provides a survey of the main stages of the whole march:
|DATE||1st Corps||4th Corps||3rd Corps||Wellington||Grouchy|
|Charleroi||Fontaine L'evèque||St. Achtenrode||Nivelle||Wavre|
|Beaumont||Colleret, near Maubeuge||Gembloux||Binche||Dinant|
|Etrouenge||Fesmey, by Nouvion||Beaumont||Chateau-Cambrésis||Rocroy|
|Cerisi, between St. Quentin and La Fère||St. Quentin||Homblieres||Cambrai||—|
|Chaunay, between La Fère and Noyon||Lassigny, between Noyon and the road from Péronne to Pont St. Maxence||Compiègne||Péronne||Soissons|
|Gelicourt. Engagement at Compiègne||Pont St. Maxence. Engagements at Creil and Senlis||—||Nesle||Villers-Cotterêt|
|Nanteuil. Engagement at Villers-Cotterêt||Marlis la Ville||Crépy||Orville||Meaux|
|Aunay||Bourguet||Dammartin||St. Martin Longueau||Paris|
|Aunay||Engagement at Aubervillers and St. Denis||En route to St. Germain||Louvres|
|Le Menil, below St. Germain||en route to St. Germain||St. Germain. Engagements at Versailles and Marlis||Gonesse|
|Meudon. Engagements at Sèvres and Issi||Versailles||Plessi-Piquet|
|Engagement at Issi|
|Convention for the evacuation of Paris|
This survey reveals:
1. That the Prussian army marched in two columns, the left wing consisting of the 1st Corps, the right wing of the 4th, both only a few miles apart, and that the 3rd Corps followed the other two as a reserve, sometimes on the one road, sometimes on the other.
2. That the column on the left crossed the Oise at Compiègne, the one on the right at Pont-Saint-Maxence and Creil.
3. That the left column advanced to Avesnes, Guise, and La Fère, whereby the first, with its garrison of 1,900 men, was taken after a bombardment of a few hours on the 22nd. Guise, with its garrison of 3,500 men, was taken on the 24th without a bombardment and occupied by 3,500 men; and La Fère was shelled without success for several hours and then observed by an infantry battalion and a squadron of cavalry.
4. That the Duke of Wellington proceeded via Cambrai in a third column and fell in behind the 4th Corps a day later at Pont-Saint-Maxence.
5. That he encountered the fortresses at Cambrai and Péronne, both of which, not being particularly defensible, were taken by him through an easy storming of the outer works.
6. That the Prussian army's march from the battlefield to Paris lasted eleven days and covered 165 miles up to Gonesse, so the speed of the march was certainly very considerable, which is also evident from the fact that only one day of rest was allowed.
7. As far as Grouchy's march is concerned, it is uncertain what route he took from Rethel to Soissons. He joined up there with the remnants of the defeated army and then began his further retreat to Paris, during which, as we will see later, he would be driven from the direct road and forced to go over Meaux. He was still at Wavre on the 19th, and reached Paris on the 29th. During these ten days he covered about 230 miles and fought several engagements.
While the two Allied armies thus hastened to Paris in three columns, they left a portion of their forces behind to besiege the nearest fortresses.
By agreement between them the Prussians undertook the siege of all the fortresses on the Sambre and to the east of this river, the Anglo-Dutch army those that lay to the west.
Prince Blücher assigned this task to the Prussian 2nd Corps and the federal troops from North Germany, under the overall command of His Royal Highness, Prince August [of Prussia].
The Duke of Wellington likewise assigned 15,000 men under His Royal Highness, Prince Frederick of the Netherlands.
After thus detaching around 60,000 men, the remaining strength of the Allies marching to Paris was about 70,000 men under Blücher, about 60,000 under Wellington. But of course we still have to subtract some 10,000 men that each of these armies left behind in garrisons and for other purposes, so that they arrived in front of Paris with no more than 100,000 men [between them].
If it had still been possible for a second decisive battle to occur there before the arrival of the other Allied armies, it would have been a mistake for the two commanders to leave so many troops behind, since nothing compelled them to besiege or surround so many fortresses at the same time, and 30 or 40,000 men would have been sufficient to surround those directly on the [Allied] lines of communications, and to observe the others. But one could foresee with certainty that even at Paris there was no question of resistance in the countryside, or even less of a counterattack, and if Paris turned out to be occupied too strongly, one could await the arrival of the other armies. It thus gained time to leave significant numbers of troops behind, in order to be able to besiege several fortresses at once and so gain actual possession of the country sooner. Moreover, it might be expected that some of these places would give way more quickly, thanks to the effects of the initial panic.
The army engaged in marching to Paris first encountered the enemy again when it crossed the Oise on the 27th.
The advance guard of the 1st Corps did so at Compiègne at 3 a.m. It had just entered the town, which lies on the left bank of the river, when it was attacked by General d'Erlon. An insignificant fight ensued. Since the French marshal had presumably arrived in too little strength, and too late in any event, he soon withdrew on his own, and the 1st Corps advanced along the Soissons-Paris road as far as Gelicourt, while sending forward its 2nd Brigade, reinforced by a regiment of dragoons, to seize control of the highway at Villers-Cotterêt and cut off any French troops that might still be in Soissons.
The 4th Corps had found Pont-Saint-Maxence unoccupied, and likewise the bridge at Creil, but nevertheless, its vanguard encountered a weak enemy detachment at Creil, which immediately gave way.
When the advance guard of the 4th Corps reached Senlis, it found the town occupied by the enemy. It was then engaged for a time, and gained possession of the town at ten in the evening.
All these detachments seem to have come from the defeated main army, and in fact their weakness, their limited resistance, and their failure to occupy the Oise bridges suggest that these remnants were certainly not going to be found in appreciable strength and a decent state of readiness.
Toward evening on the 27th the utterly exhausted troops of Marshal Grouchy's 4th Corps arrived at Villers-Cotterêt, and those of the 3rd at Soissons. He quartered his troops in the nearby villages, in order to provide them with essential food and rest as quickly as possible, and decided at two o'clock the following morning to continue the march to Nanteuil. Since he must have gotten news at Villers-Cotterêt of the battle that had taken place that morning at Compiègne, it was very risky for him to continue the march on the Soissons road. It would have been more sensible to turn immediately toward Meaux, via Ferté Milon, for at Nanteuil he could have run into three Prussian corps and been destroyed within sight of Paris. Most probably the thought of taking his weary troops on a new detour over terrible roads repelled him, and the hope of still getting though on a good quality and straight major road attracted him. He did not in fact achieve his goal, for he still had to abandon the road, but he also did not suffer the catastrophe that had threatened him. This is because the Prussian forces were not sufficiently concentrated to mount a concerted attack on him.
As we have already said, General Pirch and his 2nd Brigade were detached toward Villers-Cotterêt and on the night of the 27th-28th reached Longpré, about an hour away, at one a.m. He allowed his troops some rest and broke camp again at 2 o’clock. He initially ran into a train of horse artillery, 14 guns and 20 munitions wagons, which were trying to reach the highway from their camps at Viviers, Montgobert, and Puiseux, and were moving with virtually no escort; they were thus captured immediately. After this General Pirch advanced to attack Villers-Cotterêt itself.
Grouchy assembled his troops, 9,000 strong (presumably Gérard's corps), and offered resistance. On the other side Vandamme came up from Soissons with the French 3rd Corps. Although the sound of cannon fire on the Paris highway immediately caused a kind of panic-stricken terror to set in, as cries that they might be cut off led most of the troops there to strike out at once by way of Ferté Milon for Meaux, Vandamme nevertheless succeeded in advancing up the road with about 2000 men and came to Marshal Grouchy's assistance. General Pirch had only 5 under-strength battalions, 5 squadrons of cavalry, and 13 cannon; General Ziethen and most of the Prussian 1st Corps were on the march from Gilicourt to Crépy, around 3 hours away, and were not near enough to provide support. Vandamme advanced against Pirch's left flank, Grouchy maneuvered against his right, and under these circumstances General Pirch correctly decided a bold assault was ill-advised and so began to retreat toward Compiègne, from which he later turned toward Crépy by way of Fresnoy. General Ziethen had not yet assembled his troops at Crépy, so when the French corps passed by he could move against the highway with only the 3rd Brigade and half the reserve cavalry. The village of Levignen, through which the French passed, was shelled and the rear guard pursued to Nanteuil, where two cannon were taken.
The French corps now presumably learned that another Prussian corps had already crossed the river the day before at Creil and Pont-Saint-Maxence and did not consider it advisable to continue along the Soissons-Paris highway, but instead turned left via Assi to Meaux, and from there via Claye to Paris, where it arrived on the 29th, presumably in a rather weakened state. In addition to the 2 guns, the Prussians took about a thousand prisoners during these two days.
Thus on the 29th the Prussian army found itself in front of Paris, with its right wing behind Saint-Denis and its left by the Bondi woods. The Duke of Wellington's army was supposed to arrive on the evening of the 30th, and then Prince Blücher wanted to march off to the right with his own, crossing the Seine somewhere below Saint-Denis, in order to surround the south side of the city, or rather to establish a position there from which to attack.
Meanwhile, in order to get the most use from the initial panic, an attack against the enemy lines and outposts behind the Ourq canal was to be attempted on the night of the 29th-30th by a brigade from the 1st and 4th Corps, with the rest of the corps advancing in support. The attack took place and resulted in a sharp fight with the advance guard of the French 4th Corps at Aubervillers, but generally the enemy was found to be in good order.
Because Prince Blücher had learned that Bonaparte was in seclusion at Malmaison following his forced abdication on the 22nd, Major von Colomb of the 8th Hussars was ordered to find out whether the bridge at Chatou, on the Paris-Saint-Germain road, might still be intact, and perhaps proceed to nearby Malmaison and take Bonaparte into custody. If he found the bridge already demolished, he was to seize the one at Saint-Germain. The bridge at Chatou was in fact destroyed, so it was through this detachment that the Prussian army gained control of the bridge at Saint-Germain, which was supposed to have been demolished as well and which was very important in crossing the Seine, because this could now be accomplished a day or two sooner.
The 3rd Corps, which departed from Dammartin at 5 a.m. on the 30th, reached Gonesse at midday and had to continue its march around Paris that evening, while the 1st and 4th Corps remained opposite the enemy pending the arrival of Wellington's army. The 3rd Corps proceeded behind St. Denis via Argenteuil to Saint-Germain, where it arrived at 3 a.m., having covered thirty-two miles in less than twenty-four hours. It remained at Saint-Germain.
Lieutenant Colonel von Sohr, with six squadrons of Brandenburg and Pomeranian Hussars, thus about 600 horse, had been ordered to push forward past Saint-Germain and Versailles toward the Orleans road. He crossed the Seine before the 3rd Corps and was in Versailles when this corps reached Saint-Germain.
The 1st Corps followed the 3rd at 11 p.m., crossing the Seine below Saint-Germain at Le Menil, which it reached at seven the [following] evening, and where it remained.
The 4th Corps proceeded toward Saint-Germain at noon on the first, arriving there that night.
Lieutenant Colonel Sohr had fed his horses at Versailles and remained there for several hours with his detachment. The French, having learned of this, laid a trap for him in the woods between Versailles and Marli with two regiments of cavalry and some infantry. As Lieutenant Colonel Sohr left Versailles around midday on the road to Plessis-Piquet, he encountered enemy dragoons, who fled from him. The Prussians followed too impetuously, as far as the vicinity of Plessis-Piquet, where they were fallen upon by four regiments under General Exelmans and driven back through Versailles. They had thus already suffered heavy losses when they fell into the trap on the other side and were completely dispersed. Under these circumstances it is amazing that a couple of hundred horse from the detachment were nevertheless assembled again the next day. As a result of this engagement the French advanced toward evening as far as Marly, where they ran into the 9th Brigade, comprising the advance guard of Thielmann's corps, and fought an insignificant engagement with it.
Since Colonel Sohr's unit was not the advance guard of a corps, and consequently would not be supported, but was instead sent out several miles ahead as a raiding party, he should have conducted himself with all the caution of a guerrilla, and least of all fed his horses in a place like Versailles, thereby revealing his location and sparking the plan for his encirclement.
The three Prussian corps thus assembled at Saint-Germain on the 1st and on the 2nd set out on the march.
The 3rd Corps advanced through Versailles as far as Plessis-Piquet without encountering a significant enemy force.
The 1st Corps' route led to Sèvres, which was strongly occupied. It was attacked by the 1st brigade and courageously defended for several hours. The enemy finally had to abandon Sèvres when General Ziethen reached the heights of Meudon with his right wing. They retreated to Issi. The 1st brigade followed over Moullineau, where it fought a second brisk engagement up to Issi. This village was attacked at 7 in the evening by the 1st brigade. The enemy held it strongly, the 2nd brigade had to support the 1st's attack, and even so the fighting lasted until around midnight, when the French pulled back.
But already at three in the morning the French had turned back to attack Issi in two columns coming from Vaugirard and Montrouge, under Vandamme's command. The result was a fight for possession of the village that lasted more than an hour, albeit in vain for the French. The 1st and 2nd brigades held, and the French retreated to their positions behind Vaugirard and Montrouge.
As the Convention of St. Cloud was concluded that same day, this was the final act of the war.
The Condition of Paris
Paris was in a strange situation. On the 21st Bonaparte arrived and set himself up in the Elysée Palace. He had his ministers called in to advise on the situation. In this meeting he received a declaration from the Chamber of Deputies, in which, having been informed of recent events by Bonaparte's Bulletin, they declared themselves in permanent session and ordered the ministers to appear before them without delay. Bonaparte understood immediately that an abyss was opening under his feet, and all at once his spirit seemed to be crippled, his courage broken. He was no longer the reckless soldier of Vendémiaire and Brumaire, who could win everything while losing nothing, who boldly cut through political factions with the sword, dispelling a popular rising or overwhelming a Chamber of Deputies like an outpost. Already, among the thousand counterweights that always act in so many ways to restrain and moderate the actions of princes and commanders who operate within, and depend upon, a fixed order of things—already one of those thousand counterweights had acquired great significance for him. It was the question of his son and his dynasty.
France was not entirely pro-Bourbon, and neither was Paris. The party that ruled in the Chamber was the party of republicans and revolutionaries. Lafayette was the ringleader, and many other well-known names from that period were to be found within it. Bonaparte had high hopes of satisfying the party that now rose against him by abdicating in favor of his son. He imagined that the manifold revolutionary interests of this group would energize it and direct it specifically against the Bourbons, and that whoever became the leader in this situation would also necessarily become the center of the whole nation's political opposition to the will of the Allies.
It is obvious that this has to be regarded as half fantasy, and Bonaparte himself was anything but inwardly reconciled to this idea. On the contrary, he foresaw in the meantime that the rising factions would wipe out France's last resistance and hasten the reversal of fortune he so hated. But still, the possibility [of his son’s succession] kept him from gathering a few hundred of his loyalists and using force against the Chamber, and led him, following some futile resistance, to consent to abdicate.
After sending first his minister Regnauld and then his brother Lucien to the Chamber of Deputies, and trying in vain to pacify it; after the Chamber became more and more vocal; after they finally gave him only an hour to decide between abdicating or being deposed; after first Regnauld, then Bassano and Caulaincourt, and finally Joseph [Bonaparte] and Lucien advised him to give in—after about twelve hours of this struggle he signed his abdication in favor of his son, on the morning of the 22nd.
A Government Commission of five members was now named by both Chambers, to which Quinette and Caulaincourt were elected from the Lower House, and Carnot, Fouché, and Grenier from the Upper. Fouché became the Commission's president.
The internal factional struggle was in no way resolved by Bonaparte's abdication in favor of his son.
The true Bourbon loyalists were totally against recognizing the son, and the republicans and revolutionaries were not entirely for it either. A third party, whose leader was Fouché, and which in fact wanted the Bourbons but with some conditions, likewise saw this form of abdication as a great obstacle to compromise. By this time the proponents of these three points of view distrusted each other so much that no consensus could emerge; and, what was most important, they all feared the remnants of the Bonapartist party, which was still not entirely insignificant in Paris itself, and which could find powerful support among the troops [in the city] and the armed forces in the surrounding towns. The result was that the opposition that immediately arose against Napoleon II was suppressed, and people preferred to leave matters uncertain. Fouché and his party, who were the real leaders, still found sufficient means in the midst of this unresolved crisis to guide things toward their goal.
Fouché was President of the Government [Commission], and he was in secret contact with Wellington and the Bourbons, besides which his personality and his earlier connections suited him to play the leading role. He should thus be regarded as the head of the government, although he was of course watched with apprehension by the other members of the Commission and by the Chambers, and his actions were very constrained, being limited to the ways of intrigue and dissimulation. Next to him Davout has to be considered the most important person at this moment. He was minister of war and was named chief of the army after Soult and Grouchy declined. Moreover he entirely shared Fouché's point of view, which was the one that had the greatest chance of prevailing. It was mainly these two together who brought about the Convention of 3 July.
Considering the political situation in Paris and the nature of the authority wielded by the government, at a time when the fleeing army was hastening to return there and the Allied commanders, hot on their heels, were appearing at the gates, we can understand how difficult it must have been to think of organized resistance, of exhausting all the means still available, and so we have found it necessary to dwell on the point for a moment.
Bonaparte remained secluded at the Elysée from the 22nd to the 25th, in drab, empty rooms, accompanied by only a few friends and protected by only a single sentry from a detail of old grenadiers. Naturally his proximity must have aroused fear of unrest, which might break out either for or against him, and could lead to a catastrophe. The Government Commission therefore compelled him to move to Malmaison on the 25th, and to wait there for the passports for a journey to America that he had requested from Lord Wellington.
The Government Commission now sent the well-known delegation of Lafayette, Sebastiani, Benjamin Constant, Pontécoulant, d'Argenson, and La Forest to the Allied headquarters to announce Bonaparte’s removal and to appeal for a cease-fire. All these gentlemen and all the parties in Paris wanted to prevent an occupation of the city, partly in order to avert various sacrifices and dangers, partly to be able to use this kernel of resistance later as a bargaining chip in negotiations, through which better terms might be obtained and a final agreement reached.
Even Fouché and Davout were initially of this view; but as they saw the growing danger of an explosion by those who thought differently, as the [French] army reached the city, and as they were confronted by its continuing Bonapartist spirit and hatred of the Bourbons (which also expressed itself unmistakably against them, as the Bourbons' secret tools), they also tried to promote the possibility of surrendering Paris and of placing the army beyond the Loire.
Bonaparte's removal likewise lay close to their hearts. On the 28th, when he heard the cannon fire from the fight at Villers-Cotterêt, he was naturally overcome by a state of exaltation. All the passions of war and battle were awakened again, and drove him to offer his services to the Government Commission as a general. He succeeded in getting General Becker, who was charged with watching him, to hurry personally to Paris with this offer, and had the few horses remaining to him saddled up. But his offer was received with derision by Fouché and Davout. They both saw that it was high time to get rid of him, if they did not want to run the risk of suddenly seeing him take center stage once more. To which add that Blücher's plan to have him seized at Malmaison became known, which made Bonaparte himself somewhat more eager to begin his journey. Thus, at five o'clock on the afternoon of the 29th, he proceeded to Rochefort in the company of General Becker, where the first opportunity was to be taken to sail for America.
On the 26th the delegation sent to the headquarters of the Allied commanders was directed to go to the headquarters of the monarchs [instead], the cease-fire was turned down, and the path of negotiation was rejected out of hand.
Now, during the eight days between Bonaparte's arrival and that of the beaten army, from the 22nd to the 29th, nothing much happened as far as organizing resistance was concerned, nothing that could have led to a basic transformation of the situation. The available guns were moved into place and the nearest depot troops called in; but nothing was done in the way of arming significant new forces or carrying out serious work on the city's fortifications.
On the 28th the corps of the main army arrived under the overall command of Reille; those of Grouchy [arrived] on the 29th. The Prussians not only followed right on their heels but, as we have seen, were already at Saint-Germain on the left bank of the Seine the next day, in order to threaten Paris from its unfortified side. The French army therefore had to divide itself immediately and occupy the southern side of the city with half its strength.
We do not have any clear and definite information on the fortifications that were supposed to protect the capital. For the most part they existed only on the north side. The main works were at Montmartre, just as in 1814, only this time completely finished. From there the lines extended toward Vincennes. Saint-Denis was considered to be an outpost. Some reports describe these fortifications as having fortress-like strength, others, namely those of the delegation sent from Paris, represent them as insufficient. The following data, which are not subject to doubt, will suffice for our purposes:
1. The frontage that had to be covered on the north side of the city extended from the Seine past Charenton back to the Seine again at Chaillot, nine miles without taking Saint-Denis into account. If a defensive line was to be held between La Villette and Saint-Denis, this distance would not be any less.
2. At a council of war that the government held on the 30th, Soult declared that, since the Prussians had taken Aubervillers, it was dangerous to think of mounting a defense even on the right bank of the Seine, because if the line of the canal joining Saint-Denis and La Villette were breached the enemy could advance pell-mell among the French troops manning the fortifications at Saint-Denis. This in no way suggests fortress-like strength overall.
3. All accounts are agreed, and we ourselves are convinced, that the works on the left bank have to be regarded as very insignificant. The village of Montrouge was hastily prepared for defense, and since it had stone houses and walls exceptional resistance was certainly possible. It lay directly in front of the center on the south side, so it could well have become an objective of the main attack, and would then have cost an enormous amount of blood to take. But such a strongpoint cannot secure the area a mile or two to its left or right, and in the end people realized that Paris could be taken without taking Montrouge, no less than without taking Montmartre; and in that case the French would have been limited merely to a defense by force of arms, without appreciable cover.
4. The frontage on the south side, from the Seine back to the Seine again, which was also almost completely without defenses and so would have had to be manned by sufficient troops, extended 11,000 yards, thus almost seven miles.
The French army thus had to hold a line 16 miles, or 39,000 paces (26,000 yards) long, whose defenses were partly non-existent, partly incomplete. We must say that this state of fortification provided no special refuge and support for a shattered army.
With the 20,000 men brought in from the depots, the French army was 60,000 strong, to which were added 20,000 armed men from the suburbs who, however, were normally counted on to defend Paris itself. The fortifications were equipped for the most part with iron cannon and other dismounted guns that were available in Paris; thus sufficient numbers of these weapons were probably available for the fortifications; as for field artillery, however, the Loire army took no more than 70 guns with it. This is surely very few and, especially for the southern side, where the fighting would be more or less in the open field, far too few to think of mounting effective resistance. What can 70 guns do, spread out over 7 miles?
The Allied armies, as we have already said, reached Paris with about 50,000 men under Wellington, 60,000 under Blücher, thus almost double what the French could put opposite them in front of Paris. But the worst was that the latter could never know in what ratio the Allies would divide their forces on the two banks of the Seine, so it was still necessary for them to man their fortifications on the right bank with appreciable numbers of troops. Wellington held a bridge at Argenteuil and an outpost at Courbevoye, and so was in uninterrupted contact with Blücher. Since the countryside was very cut up due to heavy cultivation, the French could never know how many of his troops would have been moved directly onto the left bank of the Seine. It was thus easily possible that while the French had to leave 20,000 men in their fortifications, so as to be able to accept a battle around Montrouge with 40,000 men and 70 cannon, they could be attacked there by 80,000 men with 300 cannon. This did not promise a favorable result. Moreover it is noteworthy that on July 1st Davout's headquarters was still in La Villette, for the last council of war would be held there on the night of the 1st-2nd; thus at that time the better part of the French army must still have been on the north side of the city.
Having set down these relationships side by side, we want to present the decision of the final French council of war word for word; it will now make more sense and also bring the results of our reflections together in a single point.
It was held under the chairmanship of Davout, and included all those officers of exceptional reputation who found themselves in Paris, namely Marshals Masséna, Lefebvre, Soult, and Grouchy, Generals Carnot, Grenier, and many others.
Questions posed by the Government Commission
to the Council of War
Assembled at La Villette
1 July 1815
1. What is the state of the fortifications erected for the defense of Paris?
Answer: The state of the fortifications and their armaments on the right bank of the Seine, although incomplete, is generally satisfactory. On the left bank the fortifications can be regarded as non-existent.
2. Is the army capable of covering and defending Paris?
Answer: It can do so, but not indefinitely. It must not expose itself to a loss of provisions or its line of retreat.
3. If the army were attacked at all points, could it prevent the enemy from penetrating into Paris on one side or the other?
Answer: It is difficult for the army to be attacked at all points simultaneously; but if that were to happen there would be little hope of resistance.
4. In case of a reversal, could the general-in-chief reserve or recover sufficient means to oppose an entry into the city by brute force?
Answer: No general can answer for the outcome of a battle.
5. Does sufficient ammunition exist for several engagements?
6. Finally, what can be said about the fate of the capital and how long it can hold out?
Answer: There can be no guarantees in this regard.
Signed Marshal Davout, Minister of War,
Prince of Eckmühl, July 2, 3 a.m.
Taking all of this into account, our conclusions are as follows:
1. Accepting a defensive battle under the walls of Paris was not completely impossible for the French, but the battle would in all probability have been lost, in which case they had to fear that they would be forced to submit to much worse terms.
2. Even if the battle were won, that is, if the attack were repelled, the result would be nothing more than a few weeks reprieve, until the arrival of the other [Allied] armies; but this reprieve would not lead to a different outcome, nor to any change in the situation, because no major efforts of any kind were made to organize other resistance. Nor could they be, given the condition of the government. The French would thus have been fighting solely for the honor of their arms.
3. An attack on the Prussian army in its position between Meudon and Plessis-Piquet, if it arrived unexpectedly, would perhaps have promised more advantages, but the position in and of itself was very strong, so it would have been difficult to overwhelm an enemy there that was still substantially superior in numbers.
If a kind of siege were to have ensued, however, this would again have led to nothing, for the French either had to retreat toward Paris or turn toward the Loire; in the latter case the march would itself have become a kind of flight.
It is thus obvious, given the facts of the situation, that, if it were not allowed to withdraw, the army bottled up in Paris could be defeated and compelled to lay down its arms.
But this too would have served only the interests of martial glory, for under existing circumstances such an action could have no further influence on the terms of the peace.
On the other hand, speeding up the take-over of the capital could also speed up the take-over of some of the other fortresses, and the possession of the fortresses was of great importance from the point of view of guaranteeing the treaty.
Thus the interests of the two sides came together in the conclusion of the Convention, which was adopted on 3 July at St. Cloud between representatives of the two Allied commanders and the city of Paris. By its terms a cease-fire was declared, and the French army surrendered the city and withdrew to the Loire. They carried out their march on the 4th, 5th, and 6th, the Prussian 1st Corps moved in on the 7th, and Louis XVIII himself arrived on the 8th.
Advance of the Remaining Armies into France
In the middle of June Schwarzenberg's Army of the Upper Rhine stood as follows: Wrede was located between Mannheim and Kaiserslautern; the Crown Prince of Württemberg was as far as; the Austrians under Colloredo, the Prince of Hohenzollern and Archduke Ferdinand stood between Basel and Lake Constance.
On June 23, upon hearing the news of the events in the Netherlands, the Army of the Upper Rhine began to move; on this day Wrede crossed the Saar at Saarbrücken and Saargemünd following an easy fight, and the Crown Prince of Württemberg crossed the Rhine at Germersheim. On the 25th the Austrian corps crossed at Basel.
Wrede proceeded toward Nancy, the Crown Prince of Württemberg turned upstream along the Rhine toward Strasbourg. One Austrian corps under Colloredo drove Lecourbe before it and went to Belfort, the other under the Prince of Hohenzollern crossed the Rhine farther down and likewise advanced toward Strasbourg, and the reserves under Archduke Ferdinand moved toward Nancy.
On June 28 the Crown Prince of Württemberg fought a kind of engagement with General Rapp at Strasbourg, in which the latter withdrew into the fortress and the crown prince surrounded it.
At the end of July the Russian army under General Barclay reached the Rhine.
The French under Marshal Suchet also began hostilities in Upper Italy on June 15, and sought to reach the alpine passes before the Austrians. The latter arrived first, however, and, together with the Sardinians, advanced into Savoy in two columns, 50-60,000 strong, under Frimont's overall command. Meanwhile a third column, composed of Sardinian troops, moved against Marshal Brune in the county of Nizza.
The right-wing column, under Frimont's personal command, crossed the Simplon Pass and moved through Meillerie, Geneva, Fort l'écluse, and Bourge en Bresse to Maçon. That under Bubna went over Mont Cenis, Mont Melian, les Echelles, and Lyon.
Grenoble had already fallen on 3 July, and both columns reached the Saone on 10 July following several tough fights with Marshal Suchet's troops.
The Conquest of the Fortresses
Prince Frederick of the Netherlands took the fortresses at Valencienne, le Quesnoi, and Condé.
The 2nd Prussian Corps, under the supreme command of His Royal Highness Prince August, took Maubeuge, Landrecy, Marienburg, Philippeville, Rocroy, and Givet, but not, however, Charlemont.
The North German troops under the command of General Hake took Charleville, Mezières, Montmédi, and Sedan.
Luxembourg was occupied under the command of His Excellency Prince Louis of Hesse-Homburg.
Most of these conquests took place more as a result of envelopment than of actual siege, and when the latter occurred it only lasted a few days. Right down the line, these places lacked appropriate garrisons and armaments.
On the 20th of September the order was given to desist from these operations, so that the remaining fortified places in France could change hands by virtue of political submission to Louis XVIII. Those that were captured, however, would be regarded as bastions for the army of occupation.