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Napoleon at Bay, 1814

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Napoleon at Bay, 1814
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Author(s): F. Loraine Petre
Date Published: 2009/07
Page Count: 172
Softcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-737-0
Hardcover ISBN-13: 978-1-84677-738-7

The fall of an empire—by a great historian

Every history book offers—inevitably—a perspective. Some historians are rightly judged to offer more considered analysis and skill in its explanation than others, and so their names endure. One such was F. Loraine Petre whose work on the history of the Napoleonic Wars has endured and is regarded by scholars and students of the period alike, as being of the highest order. This book is no exception. Here the author has taken as his subject the campaign that led to the abdication of the Emperor, a campaign that Napoleon fought with his back to wall, hard pressed by determined enemies and woefully under resourced after the Russian debacle. Here we see a great soldier—still in possession of phenomenal powers as a battlefield commander—fighting a losing battle with consummate skill.

The only really important fighting on the 18th took place at Montereau which, after several rather contradictory orders from Schwarzenberg, Würtemberg was told to hold at any rate till the night of the 18th.<br>
When Oudinot advanced that evening, Wittgenstein had passed at Nogent, and Wrede was across at Bray, all but a rearguard left at the defile of Mouy. Victor’s orders were to be at Montereau by 6 a.m.<br>
The passage of the Seine at Montereau was by a bridge which reached the left bank just above the inflow of the Yonne, over which also there was a bridge. The right bank of the Seine here commands the left, as one sees in passing by train from Dijon to Paris. The left bank is quite flat about Montereau, the right rises steeply 150 or 200 feet above the river, falling again towards the north.<br>
The Crown Prince placed on the right bank about 8500 infantry, 1000 cavalry, and twenty-six guns. His left was in Villaron (Les Ormeaux) and the vineyards about it across the road to Paris, the centre held the château and park of Surville, and the plateau in front, the right extended to the road to Salins and the château of Courbeton. On the left bank of the Seine he had two Austrian batteries, one supporting each wing. In the eastern suburb of Montereau, and behind at the farm of Motteux, was the remaining brigade of the 4th corps. Bianchi, who was retiring by Pont-sur-Yonne, had left one brigade and the two batteries above mentioned, to help the Crown Prince.<br>
Pajol was the first of the French to come up about 8 a.m. by the Paris road with 1500 cavalry, 3000 National Guards (Pacthod) and 800 gendarmes from Spain. The cavalry was almost untrained, and Pacthod’s men only very in differently equipped and trained. Pajol was unable with his feeble troops to make any progress. At 9 a.m. Victor’s leading troops failed in an attack on the enemy’s left. It was not renewed, and all efforts were now concentrated on Villaron which covered the enemy’s line of retreat.<br>
Then there arrived Duhesme’s division and General Chataux’s. Both these were driven back from Villaron, and Chataux was mortally wounded. The Würtemberg cavalry made a vigorous counter attack, driving the French cavalry back to the woods. At 11 a.m. Victor, unable to make headway, was waiting for the arrival of Gérard. Victor was now superseded in command of the 2nd corps by Gérard, as a mark of the Emperor’s displeasure at his slowness on the previous day.<br>
It was 3 p.m. when Napoleon reached the field with the Guard. A fresh attack was now organized in four columns, of which three moved on Villaron and Surville, the fourth by the valley of the Seine against the allied right. Pajol’s troops again moved forward against the left of Villaron. The Guard was in reserve. A heavy artillery fire was poured on the Surville chateau. Villaron was at last taken and Pajol fell upon the Würtembergers’ left with his cavalry, just as the Crown Prince was commencing a retreat, which he saw to be inevitable in face of the 30,000 men and seventy guns now opposed to his small force.<br>
Schaefer’s brigade, in the park of Surville, was ordered to cover the retreat by the bridge, but the chateau was stormed and its defenders captured. The retreat now degenerated into a wild flight down the steep slopes towards the bridge. Pajol, charging along the main road, crossed the bridge over the Seine along with the fugitives, sabring them right and left, continuing over the Yonne bridge, and clearing Montereau completely of the enemy. The debris of the defeated brigades fell back on that of Hohenlohe, and the whole retired in confusion on La Tombe, covered by Jett’s cavalry of Hohenlohe’s brigade.<br>
The battle of Montereau was a severe defeat for the allies, who lost nearly 5000 men, 3400 of them being prisoners, and fifteen guns. Moreover, it gave Napoleon the important bridges over the Seine and Yonne. For this he was mainly indebted to the magnificent energy of Pajol’s last charge which converted the allied retreat into a rout, and left the enemy no time to blow up the bridges. Pajol was so badly wounded that he could take no further part in the war.<br>
The Crown Prince and his troops made a gallant effort to resist overwhelming forces, which they kept in check for many hours; but their position, with the river spanned by only one bridge at their back, was one in which defeat was almost sure to be followed by disaster. They would probably have done the Emperor more harm by retreating at once and effectually blowing up the Seine bridge, but Schwarzenberg’s orders forbade this course.<br>
On this day the French reached the Seine at Nogent and Bray, but found the bridges destroyed at both places, which made the Montereau bridge of supreme importance, for Napoleon had no bridging equipment as yet. On the allied left the Austrian troops on and beyond the Loing fell back before Allix and Charpentier. When Montereau was taken, their position became very dangerous, and it was only by pretended negotiations with Allix that they gained time to retreat south-eastwards to rejoin the remains of the brigade which Bianchi had left behind at Montereau, and which had been forced up the left bank of the Yonne to Serotin.
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