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Monday, March 30, 2015

Napoleon & the War in Germany

By Gwynne Jones
Written 1992 

MURAT, after being dislodged from behind the Niemen Fluss to the other side of the Vistula, in his turn deserted, at Posen. Command devolved on the Viceroy of Italy, Prince Eugene de Beauharnais, the Emperor's stepson. His field army, composed of worn-out survivors of the Retreat plus multi-national "detachments de marche", provisional units, numbered 12,000. With the remains of four, once huge Corps, I, II, III and IV, Eugene garrisoned three fortresses on the Oder Fluss and Spandau, near Berlin. He sent back officer and N.C.O.      cadres to Erfurt, who, together with many more from Spain, Napoleon used to form the nuclei of many more units.
Many N.C.O.s were commissioned, (including Sergeant Bourgogne, later author of the famous memoirs of the Great Retreat); not all such proved satisfactory. The military colleges were stripped of cadets, however young, but these were usually sent to old units. From his territories, the Emperor demanded a huge mass of conscripts for the rank and file.
EVEN before the winter debacle, in September 1812, he had ordered out 120,000 (soon 137,000) of the class of 1813. These were in the depots but still untrained by December. For organised reinforcements, Napoleon took 84 (soon 88) cohorts[1] of the National Guard, who were 20-26 year olds not called up in the six years 1807-1812 when eligible for conscription and legally thereafter exempt from military service. Under pressure, these volunteered en masse for foreign service. Numbering approximately 80,000, they were transformed into 22 four-battalion regiments. Another 80,000 form the same six-year classes were used to fill other units. Finally, 150,000 18 and 19-year olds from the class of 1814 were ordered to report to the depots, but not before February 1813. The Empire could not arm and train half a million raw recruits simultaneously. There were some units of experienced men: 8,000 marines from coastal forts comprising 16 battalions; 5,000 veterans in the municipal guards who made up six battalions  and nine regular battalions from Italy. These would be some degree of stiffening, but far more were needed to settle the fate of Europe.
CORPS I to IV of the Grand Armee had contained 36 regiments. Napoleon rebuilt these as four-battalion units, therefore, needing 144 additional battalions, on the old organization. In France, there existed only the cadres for 100 detached battalions whose parent regiments were serving in Spain, Illyria, etc. They were filled with recruits and grouped together in twos and threes to form new regiments. So far: 363 battalions! Now for higher formations.
THE V Corps, Lauriston's, consisting of 48 National Guard cohorts, assembled at Magdeburg in late February
and early March 1813. It was the first higher-level formation to be ready and it was swelling Eugene's Army of the Elbe in April. Ney's III Corps of 60 battalions, (four divisions), and Marmont's of 50, assembled at Mainz in March and April. There were also Bertrand's 54 battalions from Italy, (late IV and XII Corps), I Corps' 64 battalions and II Corps 48 battalions. One French and two Saxon divisions made up VII Corps. The Imperial Guard was strengthened by three divisions of Young Guard, mostly conscripts but probably with the best cadres. One small Old Guard division came from the survivors of the Retreat, Guard depots and 3,000 veterans of Spain.
THE new divisions averaged above 14 battalions, in contrast to Marmont's (and Wellington's) divisions at Salamanca which averaged only nine. Their manpower was twice those of Marmont's which averaged 5,000. Was Napoleon short of good divisional commanders, as Soham's performance on the morning before the battle of Lutzen seems to suggest? In fact, the Corps commanders proved even less reliable, in spite of their records.
WHAT was the quality of the new infantry? Opinions vary: some officers found the young men too weak for hard marching, too sickly and too unwilling. When the class of 1813 began to run out, Napoleon said that lads from the class of 1814 could be used. He specified, however, that "the big and strong" should be selected: this is suggestive. In the Empire's twilight years, many conscripts unwilling to serve became "refractaires", evading or even resisting induction. Soldiers were sent to capture them and to impose pressure on their families to bring about their surrender. Certainly, many units left a frightfully, large trail of sick and stragglers in the Spring marches of 1813. Desertion was rife. On the other hand, witnesses wrote of the good qualities of the new soldiers. Both could be right. After sickness and desertion weeded out the weakest and least willing, those who were left were tougher and gained esprit de corps, probably having become quite efficient, brave and obedient soldiers.
UNFORTUNATELY, they were not very efficient in the first campaign of 1813. All the stories of young fellows poorly or only partly trained seem to be true. Virtually none, save the National Guardsmen, were familiar with their weapons. Most never had a musket in their hands before quitting their depots. Depot commanders who tried to obey the rule that each recruit should fire six blank and two ball rounds were censured for delaying their conscripts departure for the front.
GETTING a quarter of a million young civilians into units and to the front was a wildly confused and frantically rushed performance. In mid-April, a fortnight before the first great battle, a French general wrote of the very fatigued battalions arriving: "...the young soldiers show courage and good-will. Every possible moment is utilized in teaching them to load their arms and bring them to their shoulder." Some conscripts were so small and weakly that it was not beyond a joke. The Minister of Police in Paris protested their drilling in the Champs Elysees because of the derision they provoked from the crowds. It was difficult to produce useful infantry in four months or less and impossible to make cavalry. A year was needed.
CAVALRY available to the Emperor in the Spring of 1813, consisted of 11,000 good French and 4,000 allied. Masses of cons
Battle of Lutzen 1813 by Fleischmann
cript horse were available later, but proved virtually useless. At the first battle, on 2 May 1813, Lutzen, 7,500 French cavalry were present and wisely attempted nothing against 19,000 Allies. Lieutenant Vossler of the Wurttemberg cavalry describes the rebuilding of his cavalry regiment, destroyed in Russia, in two months.
"On 3 February 1813, the Regiment ... was newly equipped with officers, men and horses. The men had been conscripted during ... January and       the horses bought in Leipzig... We ... began drilling the men and training the horses on 4 February. By the end of the month, we had advanced to troop and squadron exercises, and by the end of March men and horses were fit for combat."
(One might doubt that, unless their opponents had also had only two months' training). Regimental exercises for Vossler's regiment began early in April and by late April the campaign was on. Lack of good, and numerous cavalry proved an acute handicap to Napoleon's army and incapacitated him from properly turning an enemy's defeat into an rout.[2]

Published in January 1995 Issue
Series 2; Part II:
The Road to Dresden, 2
by Gwynne Jones
Crown Prince Charles John (Marshal Bernadotte)
With the failure of the peace congress to produce peace, (the Allies' minimum demands were "outrageous" to Napoleon), both sides prepared to resume hostilities with their expanded and improved forces. The Allies, (now, including Austria), had the following main armies. The Northern Army, 120,000 men under the Crown Prince and ruler of Sweden, Bernadotte, consisting mainly of Prussians; the Southern Army 240,000 men under the Austrian Schwarzenberg in Bohemia, with masses of Austrians but including many Prussians and Russians; the Army of Silesia, 95,000 men under Blucher, consisting of Prussians and Russians, and a reserve of 60,000 men in Poland. And their numbers were growing.
Napoleon, on paper, also had three main armies: Oudinot's 85,000 men in the North; Ney with 85,000 men in the East, and the Emperor with 165,000 South-West of Ney; plus Davout's 35,000 men in Oudinot's area, in Hamburg. The Emperor himself controlled Ney's force and took what he wanted from Oudinot. For his basic strategy, Napoleon consulted his Marshals, something he would never have done even a few years earlier. It was a defensive strategy, with determination to go over to the offensive as soon as possible. The had never before have to act defensively, except for the siege of Mantua. His two armies between Breslau and Dresden could be well placed to support each other and to deal with either an advance from Silesia, in the East, or Bohemia, in the South. The Emperor made two important miscalculations, not in themselves fatal. He greatly overestimated the size of the Army of Silesia, and he was convinced that if the Army of Bohemia were to attack, it would be on the right bank (East) of the Elbe. (In fact, when Schwarzenberg advanced on Dresden, he was on the left bank, as was his objective). As Napoleon put it:
"the ... campaign can only lead to a good result, if to begin ... there is a great battle ... in order to have a decisive an brilliant affair, there are more favourable chances in holding ourselves ... concentrated ... awaiting the arrival of the enemy."
Napoleon knew he was outnumbered.
Marshal Oudinot
Virtually all critics agree that his analysis was correct and the basic scheme sound. What went wrong? Two things - both the Emperor's own doing. First, he put his Eastern front further East, on the Katzbach, although he had only recently condemned this as dangerous, being too far from his main base, Dresden. Second, he decided on continuing, with much larger forces than before the Armistice, the offensive against Berlin, under the same inadequate commander, Oudinot. Virtually all critics see these decisions as serious errors. A partial offensive spoiled the general and early overall offensive without offering a corresponding gain, (even if all Prussia were overrun), and seriously weakened the forces which would have to oppose the largest enemy concentrations. Since it took a considerable French force, the one situated further from the centre, even further away, it dangerously weakened the advantage that he could expect from interior lines.
ST-CYR, consulted, opposed the advance on Berlin, because he was (rightly) sure that Napoleon had undervalued the number and quality of Bernadotte's army. His suggestion: 150,000 French to cover the Elbe between Magdeburg and Dresden, while the Emperor led 250,000 into Bohemia. Napoleon's only reply was that it was too late to make a plan so very different from the one he had already thought out.
Marshal Marmont
Marmont also unhesitatingly condemned the plan, especially in separating the French into three armies, which would deprive the Emperor of the strength needed for a decisive victory over the Allies' main forces on the Elbe and the upper Spree. He added his famous prophecy:
"I fear greatly lest on the day upon which your Majesty has gained a victory and believe you have won a decisive battle, you may learn that you have lost two."
Marmont also claimed that the march on Berlin was inspired by Napoleon's bitterness against Prussia (and Bernadotte) and a desire for immediate and "startling and terrible" vengeance. Many historians accept this explanation, (as do I), though it is true that overrunning Prussia would have advantages for the French, including the release of garrisons on the Oder.
All sensible people condemn Napoleon's choice of a commander against Berlin: Oudinot was a competent Division commander, barely adequate for a Corps. St-Cyr, Marmont and Davout were all infinitely superior generals. Later, Napoleon made another gratuitous blunder, by almost accidently substituting Ney (on the Katzbach) with Macdonald - far worse than Oudinot who, at least, obeyed orders.

The Allies also had a plan, a very fair plan, and one which actually worked - although it was worked out by a committee of generals. It is true that a very important improvement was made by Schwarzenberg's Chief-of-Staff, Radetzky (who became sufficiently famous to have a Strauss march named after him). The plan was for any single army advanced on by Napoleon himself to retire, while the other two armies would close on the Emperor's rear. Any French armies NOT led by Napoleon in person were fair game; they had, by now, the measure of the French Marshals.

[1] Each cohort was the same as a full-strength battalion, i.e. six companies of 144 men each.
[2] Napoleon wrote: " is impossible to fight anything but a defensive war unless one has achieved parity with the enemy cavalry." (In Chandler).

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