Blücher was joined by the Tsar of Russia,
King of Prussia and Schwarzenberg.
Visibility was poor due to falling snow.
Inside a radius of few kilometers 100,000 soldiers and almost 500 guns were concentrated.
The soldiers blue with cold, with several days' growth of facial hair, dressed in wet and cold uniforms were gathering under Colors. The previous day some fences had been torn down, doors and windows burned and some stables had already been conveyed to the bivouacs. Hygienic conditions must have been frightful. The weather was horrible, intermittent rain and snow with the clay made the roads almost impassable and tree limbs sagged laden with the wet snow. The weather made vehicular traffic difficult and the troops struggled to move into their assigned positions.
Napoleon faced growing in strength allied armies.
Unwilling to risk battle in such disadvantage, he intended to withdraw, however Blücher forced him to deploy and fight. Victor and Grouchy informed Napoleon that large numbers of enemy troops had been seen to the south and east. Napoleon mounted his horse and rode out to see for himself. The visibility was poor due to falling snow and Napoleon wasn't really convinced.
Far to the south of the French positions were positions of Allies' troops. On Heights of Trannes was Blücher. At noon he was joined by the Tsar of Russia (ext.link), King of Prussia and Austrian commander-in-chief Schwarzenberg.
The Russian and Austrian troops marched very slowly to their assigned positions.
The roads were waterlogged and then frozen and again waterlogged - it made a hell for the
numerous artillery. Many guns and wagons became immobilised. Russian General Nikitin ordered each gun to be served by two teams of horses. It moved half of his horse artillery forward but the other half was left behind and without horses.
Thick gun smoke mixed up with snowflakes.
General Sacken was sitting on his horse where the artillery projectiles began flying like hail stones.
The rough-hewn Russians, with their motley armament of Russian, British and captured French muskets, and short on ammunition greeted their general with rousing cheer. Their fervor carried them through the first onslaughts that surged through the French advance posts.
La Rothiere was defended by Duhesme's division. Philippe Duhesme had only 4 btns. (1 light and 3 line). On both sides of the village stood artillery, in front was chain of skirmishers.
Duhesme was an expert of light infantry combat and in 1814 wrote "Essai sur l’infanterie légère, ou Traité des petites operations de la guerre, à l’usage des jeunes officiers". ' Duhesme said that 'It is in this genre of combat that the French genius shines with the greatest brilliance,' He thought that in the 1791 Reglement were too many useless movements. Duhesme died at Waterloo killed by the Prussians.
Nikitin's gunners deployed their pieces only a short distance away from the French advance posts and opened fire. The artillery continued to pound away at the French, while Russian infantry, strirred by the rhytmic beating of its drums, prepared to attack.
The first to be in action were 4 jäger btns. (11th and 36th Jäger Regiments) under Diedrich.
These units started forward, across a field and into a blizzard of musketry and artillery fire. On they pressed, driving the French skirmishers back.
Nansouty hoped to surprise the Russians (Nikitin's two batteries and Dietrich's 4 btns.) Nikitin noticed the French cavalry moving toward his batteries (it was part of Nansouty's Guard cavalry). The jägers formed squares behind Nikitin's artillery. When the advancing cavalry came within 500 paces the guns fired canister, and the gunners run to the safety of the squares. The Guard cavalry circled around the squares but were unable to penetrate them. The squares fired one or two volleys and the French rode back to own lines.
A heavy snow began falling.
When the snowfall lifted the French artillery positioned on both sides of La Rothiere
opened fire on Sacken's infantry. Sacken's deployed more artillery and opened counter-battery fire. Meanwhile his infantry formed in heavy columns moved toward La Rothiere.
When the columns came closer they got under musket fire from buildings and gardens.
The Russians struggled to deploy under such fire. Thick gun smoke mixed up with snowflakes.
Russian dragoons captured 24 guns of Old Guard
Nansouty's first attack against the squares of infantry failed. Now there were more Russians and they were advancing in heavy columns and struggled to deploy under heavy fire.
The cautious Nansouty saw his chance. This time he took not one but three cavalry divisions (2 of Old Guard and 1 of Young Guard). In reserve was left only one cavalry division of Young Guard.
Seeing the mass of cavalry moving against him, Sacken called GL Vasilchikov for help.
Vasilchikov dispatched one hussar division under Lanskoi. The hussars however were crushed and pursued by the Guard cavalry. The Guard also attacked Sacken's infantry and artillery.
The situation was very difficult for the Russians until Panchulitzev's dragoons arrived.
The dragoons sprang forward with outstretched sabers, while the fleeing hussars halted and joined the fresh force. Together they attacked the French from the front and flank.
The Guard cavalry gave way and fled north of La Rothiere leaving behind 24 guns of Old Guard in Russian hands.
(The fight with infantry, hussars and artillery disordered Nansouty's elite troops. In such situation the fresh dragoons had relatively easy job. There were plenty of identical situations at Leipzig, Borodino, Waterloo etc.)
The 1.500 Russian dragoons must have impressed the French because they inflated their numbers to 6,000 (for example in "Journal Historique de Cavalry Legere du Corps de Cavalerie pendant La Campagne de France en 1814"). Further advance of the Russians was halted by one dragoon division brought by Milhaud. The French advanced "in column of squadrons" and threw the Russians back. The situation in cavalry combat changed so quickly that when Vasilchikov informed Blucher about his success it was too late to take advantage of it. The captured 24 guns of Old Guard stayed in Vasilchikov's hands as a trophy.
Street fighting: French vs Russians.
Russian infantry was formed in 2 large columns.
Although the aggressive actions of Nansouty's Guard cavalry failed they made Graf Sacken to slow down. He formed infantry of VI and IX Corps in two large columns in such a way that they could repulse cavalry attack. Only then they advanced forward and readied their bayonets when noticed that snow wetted their powder and made many muskets useless.
(Von der Sacken (Osten-Sacken) was born in 1752. In 1766 he entered military service in infantry. In 1806-1807 in Eastern Prussia Sacken commanded entire division. The commander-in-chief of Russian army, Bennigsen, unfairly accused Sacken of failings during campaign. It resulted in military court and Sacken being out of army for several years.)
In La Rothiere are Duhesme's 4 btns. (1 light and 3 line). Through the curtain of snow, the adversaries were watched. Suddenly, a brisk fusillade bursts. The crackling intensifies, then suddenly is replaced by an immense clamor which mixes with the sound of the drums beating the charge. The action takes shape; the night will not fall without the two parties coming to blows.
Disregarding canister and musket fire Sacken's infantry enter La Rothiere.
Soldiers on both sides use bayonets, fists and stones. The hardest battling is for the church and the main street. Killed and wounded are sprawling in the wet snow. The Russians (16 weak btns.) captured the church and took over the center of La Rothiere but the French (4 strong btns.) held the northern side of the village. The French fired on the Russians as they took up positions behind buildings, trees, walls and in the gardens. During the hand-to-hand combat Sacken's infantry captured 8 guns.
The Passive Austrians.
In 1813 and 1814 the Austrian Emperor leaned toward coming to terms with Napoleon so as to restrain the ambitions of the Russian and Prussian monarchs. In 1814 the French soldiers noticed that the Russian and Prussian POWS were on bad terms with the Austrian POWs. The former said that their defeats were due to the slowness of the Austrians. The offended Austrians called the Russians and Prussians "Cossacks" and "Sauer-krauts". In some cases these quarrels turned into insults and blows.
At La Rothiere Blucher called for 14,200 men of Giulay's (Austrian) III Corps to support Sacken's hard-fighting troops. Giulay took the village of Unienville and deployed part of his artillery. Napoleon directed two brigades to hold Dienville and bridge at all cost.
Giulay moved Chollich's Brigade toward Dienville. Pfluger's Brigade was near the river and Grimmer's Brigade was to link with Sacken's troops. The Austrian infantry was supported by part of Archduke Ferdinand Hussar Regiment and 18 guns of reserve (6 heavy and 12 light). But Giulay's actions made little impression on the French. Napoleon's infantry pitched the bullets into the Austrians so rapidly they couldn't stand the racket and retreated.
The Wirtembergians were in trouble.
Blücher created confusion.
On eastern flank were Wirtembergians and Bavarians.
Stockmeyer commanded Advance Guard Brigade and his infantry pushed back the French advance posts. In the beginning they enjoyed notable but short-lived success.
Wirtembergian 4 sq. of Herzhog Louis Chevaulegers were brought forward but the French cavalry withdrew before attack. It left French 2 btns. without any support. When the Wirtembergians rushed against them, they broke and fled. Approx. 130 were captured and taken into captivity. The Wirtembergian chevaulegers (lighthorsemen) advanced toward La Giberie and the height nearby and drove the French from there.
To the north of Stockmayer's Wirtembergians marched Wrede's Bavarians and Austrians. Marshal Victor directed part of Forestier's Brigade (46th and 93rd Line) against Stockmayer. Forestier charged overthrowing everything on his way. At 4 pm the Wirtembergians were streaming back. The situation became difficult and Crown Prince - commander of the Wirtembergians - asked Blücher for immediate help.
After 4 pm Blücher sent his chief-of-staff Gneisenau to General Sacken.
La Rothiere was considered as the most important point in Napoleon's line and
Blücher in 'soldierly way' urged Sacken to capture it. Sacken was with his hard fighting men in the village and saw the situation himself. Sacken told Gneiseanu that Blucher's orders are impossible to execute and asked for support from the Reserves standing on the Trannes Heights. The same urgent question asked Crown Prince, his troops also struggled against the French near La Giberie.
Blucher orders his powerful Reserves (Russian grenadiers, cuirassiers and Guard) under Barclay de Tolly to support the Wirtembergians.
The Reserves immediately began their march but Barclay de Tolly wanted to keep at least the 2nd Grenadier Division and ordered it to go back to Trannes Heights. De Tolly tought they are more needed for Sacken than for the Wirtembergians. Commander of the division - Paskevich - protested as de Tolly's order was not signed by Blücher. The confused Russian grenadiers engulfed in voluminous greatcoats halted not knowing what to do and which order to follow.
Meanwhile Napoleon's Guard cavalry led by the brave Colbert attacked Sacken's infantry. Olsufiev's IX Corps was hit hard and Sacken again sent a messenger to Blücher urgently asking for support. Now Blücher realized how difficult situation was not only with the Wirtembergians but also at La Rothiere. He ordered the Russian Reserves back !
Wrede's Bavarians Attacked Napoleon's Flank.
Poor visibility prevented the Germans from greater success.
Karl Philipp von Wrede (1767–1838) was a Bavarian (German) general (field-marshal). His corps attacked Napoleon's flank at La Rothiere.
(Wrede led the Bavarian corps that aided Napoleon’s victory at Wagram in 1809. Just before the Leipzig he negotiated the Treaty of Ried between Austria and Bavaria and fought with the allies against Napoleon. Few months before La Rothiere Wrede's corps attacked the retreating French army at Hanau however, was routed by Napoleon. Wrede received a wound in his head. In 1814 he was created prince and field marshal, Wrede represented Bavaria at the Congress of Vienna.)
Marmont's weak corps attempted to cover the front between Chaumesnil and Morvilliers.
With the passage of troops, the frozen ground turned to mud that clung to the wheels of the artillery and train. One of French horse batteries was caught in the flank and was overrun by 2 sq. of Austrian Schwarzenberg Uhlan Regiment. While Hardegg's infantry division deployed before Morvilliers and La Motte's Bavarians were on their flank, Rechburg carried Beauvoir Farm defended by Joubert's Brigade. Behind Hardegg's division marched Splenyi's division and these forces were too much for one French brigade. Marmont ordered Joubert to withdraw his infantry to Ajou Wood. The French were followed by Wrede's Austrians and Bavarians.
At 4 pm arrived Wirtembergian officer asking Wrede - in very strong words - for help.
Wrede accordingly ordered to attack the village of Chaumesnil and the Austrian Grenzers spearheaded the attack. The village was defended by 2 btns., but the French fell back without a fight. Wrede garrisoned the village with Frimont's infantry and deployed two batteries. When Napoleon learned about the capture of Chaumesnil he ordered to recapture the village. Guyot's 2nd Old Guard Cavalry Division, Meunier's 1st Voltigeur Division and additional 16 guns marched against the Bavarians.
At 7 pm near Chaumesnil Wrede's two Austrian batteries exchanged fire with French 16 guns.
The French were protected by Doumerc's cavalry and Lagrange's infantry formed in squares. Wrede ordered up two Bavarian and one Austrian regiment of light cavalry. They charged, captured the French guns and routed Doumerc's cavalry which attempted to intervene.
The French cavalry fled but poor visibility prevented the Bavarian and Austrian cavalrymen further pursuit.
Napoleon was in trouble, the Russians stubbornly held the center, while Wrede's troops captured Chaumesnil and attacked his flank. One year later, at Waterloo, Napoleon will experience similar situation.
Crown Prince was strengthened with Adam's cavalry division and his encouraged Wirtembergians launched attack on La Giberie and then on Petit Mesnil. The first village was taken without problem. The French put up a short fight in Petit Mesnil, but lost heavily and abandoned the village. Bavarian cavalry charged the exposed flank of Marmont's infantry. The French fled in panick and Marmont's corps was finished. Napoleon ordered Grouchy's cavalry and Ney's Young Guard to delay the advance of Wirtembergians. Meanwhile the rest of Napoleon's army began withdrawal.
The Young Guard in Burning La Rothiere.
Young Guard vs Russian grendiers
Napoleon made a personal tour of the battle field and ordered Ney and the Young Guard to recapture La Rothiere. Galloping on to the left, where the reserve troops were readying, Ney rode along the line of the Young Guard then swung his horse toward the enemy and shouted "I will lead you !" The Russians were stubborn, the Young Guard must use bayonets. The darkness was falling when three columns of 2nd Tirailleur Division fell upon Sacken's infantry. Majority of the Russians fled and only few fired their muskets. Sacken's reserve who stood behind the village counterattacked but the French brought 4 guns near the church and halted the Russians. According to P.P.H. Heath:
"The French (column) advancing up a narrow street and as yet not knocked about by the ebb and flow of battle, found themselves at the entrance to the village square besides the church. Across the 30 yards of open space was a column, or more accurately, a mass of Russian infantry pouring out onto the cobbles. The Russians, seeing the enemy appear, directed a badly aimed volley and refused to advance further. The two bodies of men now faced each other, hurling musket balls and insults at each other, but neither showed the slightest enthusiasm to charge home, despite the best efforts of their officers."
The confusion was riotous and some buildings were burning. Meanwhile two other columns of Young Guard entered the village and it seemed that the Russians lost La Rothiere. There was even a group of French cavalry who swept through the streets. The horsemen almost captured Sacken.
Blucher directed Russian 2nd Grenadier Division toward the burning village. Behind the grenadiers marched Austrian Grimmer's brigade. The Astrakhan Grenadier Regiment and Little Russia Grenadier Reegiment charged into La Rothiere and drove the Young Guard at bayonet point.
The Young Guard broke and fled and was only rallied in the northern part of the village "by officers beating men back into the ranks." They were able to hold on few buildings so the fight for the village was inconclusive.
Napoleon's Army Began Withdrawal.
Drouot received order to burn the village to the ground with his artillery.
Austrian brigade attacking Dienville made no progress. Gerard's troops repulsed the white-coats and inflicted heavy casualties. Giulay ordered to cannonade the village but it brought very little results. To justify his complete failure Giulay wrote report that he had to fight against Napoleon's Old Guard.
About 8 pm the Young Guard abandoned La Rothiere and Drouot received order to burn it to the ground with his artillery. At 9 pm the snow was again falling hard.
Vasilchikov's cavalry had advanced north, from La Rothiere toward Brienne. Druout's batteries fired on them in the falling darkness but it made little impression on the hussars and dragoons.
Meunier's 1st Voltigeur Division retired for the night on Brienne.
Splenyi's Austrian division moved to the eastern edge of Ajou Wood and Marmont's infantry retired to the western edge of wood.
It was dark and the Bavarian and Wirtembergian cavalry repeatedly charged each other by mistake.
The Allies lost 4,500 - 6,400 killed and wounded (Sacken's hard fighting Russians alone lost 4,000 !) Napoleon had 6,000 casualties but his loss in artillery was serious, 54-83 guns were left in enemy's hands. Chandler: "Each side lost an estimated 6,000 men" (Chandler - "Dictionary of the Napoleonic wars" p 239)
The French troops were not destroyed but the Russians commanded by old Blucher won the battle. The clash at La Rothiere showed that though the French lacked the numbers to turn the tide, the rugged infantrymen still had the ability to make the Allies pay in blood for every foot of ground they gained.
Russian and French troops at La Rothiere, by Parhaiev