Tuesday, July 06, 2010

The rearguard action at Rosnay 2nd February 1814

As night fell on the 1st February the defeated French Army began to withdraw from LaRothiere heading towards Brienne, after realising there was no pursuit Napoleon decided to halt there for the night. He stayed at the chateau protected by a battalion of infantry and four squadrons of cavalry of the Guard.

Marshal Marmont continues:
In the evening I went to see the Emperor at the Chateau de Brienne. He gave me his intentions for the next day. The army would withdraw (west) to Troyes passing over the Aube by the bridge at Lesmont. To facilitate this and to prevent the enemy from pursuing too rapidly, Napoleon ordered me with my foot, which amounted to no more than two thousand men, my cavalry and six guns, to move (north) via Perthes to Rosnay. The rest of my guns and my baggage would follow the main road (direct) to Rosnay (from Brienne). I was to occupy the position at Perthes before daylight, and demonstrate in order to attract the attention of the enemy, then to retire on Rosnay, which stands behind the Voire, a narrow but deep river, and defend the river crossing. A bridge, below Rosnay, was used (by the baggage and guns) to retire and a small force led by General Corbineau was charged with destroying that bridge after having passed over it.

I moved to Perthes overnight (3am). This village is located in the middle of a swampy area, but at this moment, the ground was very firm, because of the excessive cold which prevailed. It is located on a small hill (at its highest it is no more than 6-10 meters above the surrounding land). At daybreak, I placed my troops so that they would seem both quite numerous and threatening to the enemy.

The main body of army withdrew, in some disarray, their movement quickened as the approached the bridge at Lesmont, with the disasters of the previous season coming to their minds, fearing the greatest of misfortunes.

Suddenly the enemy, seeing a corps of troops within reach of his right flank changed the direction of his march and brought almost all it's forces against me. I was fulfilling my purpose. I began to fall back towards the bridge, but wishing to occupy the enemy for as long as possible, I did not hasten to cross. I placed several detachments of infantry, in clumps of trees located a short distance in front of the bridge, my cavalry was placed in the rear as support.

The enemy had immense forces. They began by establishing a battery of twenty pieces of cannon and it was only when the battery had started to fire that I decided to cross over the river in parade order, without confusion, and as if I had performed a great maneuver. Once safely across the river, I set about destroying all the bridges in the vicinity, one after the other. We were unfortunately without any kind of tools. The sharp frost had turned the earth that covered these bridges as hard as stone. It was only with extreme difficulty that we managed to make a break. Without axes or saws to destroy them the beams themselves however remained intact.

During this work, I noticed on the right bank of the Voire, at some distance, several men on horseback who appeared to be enemies. I assumed that there was a ford on the Voire at a lower point, and had been crossed by some scouts. As I had nothing to do with my cavalry at that moment, I gave orders for them to clear the riverside. A little later, thinking that a some infantry would be helpful, I ordered the General Lagrange to leave, with eight hundred men (121eme and 132eme), and follow the cavalry.

Finally, the bridge was destroyed as best it could be, I decided to go down the river, and see for myself what was happening. Halfway to where the troops were, I heard the sound of musket fire. I hurried on and I saw five hundred men of my troops (121eme) that General Lagrange had brought up, retreating in confusion at the sight of a mass of three or four thousand infantry marching towards them having crossed the river on the bridge abandoned by General Corbineau without destroying it.

I ran to the fleeing troops, and tried to rally them, but it was in vain. So I ran to the 131eme (I believe he means the 132eme), who were about three hundred men strong, standing in reserve, and formed in column. A few words sufficed to exite them. Immediately after that we they to beating the charge. I placed myself ten paces in front with some officers. I sent my cavalry an order to simultaneously charge the flank of the enemy from the hill. Those who fled earlier and had been deaf to my voice came to their feet at the sight of this offensive movement. We arrived, with impetuosity, at the edge of the plateau, and at the same time as the front of the enemy mass began to attack along the side of the River. The melee was the work of a moment. Struck by our fire and sabred by the cavalry, those who were not killed were taken prisoner or drowned. The enemy lost about three thousand men.

Almost all of the enemy army formed up on the other side of river. Eighty thousand men were in sight. A large artillery battery deployed against us, but without effect. Everything, on our side, both guns and troops, lay under cover in ambush.

The enemy tried again to cross the bridge, but my six guns, placed within range, threw them back. Many skirmishers directed their fire across the river, and the enemy, after two more unsuccessful attempts, gave up.

An insignificant skirmish then ensued between one bank and the other.

But the enemy did not wish to give up the chance to avenge that setback. They moved some of their troops in front of Rosnay and tried to repair the bridge over which we had passed.

They found the beams were in place but with no decking. They had to balance their way across, one by one, on the beams. I placed an officer of choice with three hundred men (40eme and 142eme) in ambush, behind and covered by the church. I gave him orders to let the enemy advance, at least one hundred men had to cross the river. Then the three hundred men in ambush marched on them, capturing them or throwing then in the water.

This brave officer named Salette, had long been my aide. He carried out his orders promptly, and the enemy party, the head of the column was destroyed but he lost his life.

The enemy then abandoned to any further attempts to cross the river. Meanwhile, I was warned that a column had appeared on the road to Vitry (I think this was most likely the Schwarzenberg Uhlans that had crossed at Rances around 4pm appearing on his left flank rather than on the Vitry road), and was going to take us from the rear. The moment was critical. Retreat into an open country before such a huge force, so close behind, was very dangerous. A little breathing space was necessary. Bad weather came to my rescue, snow falling in large flakes, overcast skies. My troops marched to a mile back. I left the infantry in place at the bridge to face the enemy, advising them to reduce their fire step by step, and then come and join us. The enemy failing to perceive the silence or our leaving, allowed them to rejoin us, and we were in full march for Dampier and Arcis which we reached by evening.

Rarely has a general been in such difficult circumstance. If I had arrived a few minutes later at the point where the enemy had crossed the river, or had I hesitated to put myself at the head of the handful of soldiers, the only troops to hand, that was my entire corps, no one would have escaped. There is great charm and a great pleasure to achieve a personal success, to feel the depths of ones consciousness, the power of ones personal force, and to have tipped the balance and secured the victory. The feeling of great happinness, shared by others, from the expression of admiration and gratitude of others can hardly be believed if not experienced.

The Emperor, delighted with our success, rewarded the officers I pointed out to him. This coup de force, made with so few people against troops so superior in numbers and resources, proved that there was still a remnant of energy in ourselves, and if the numbers overwhelmed us, we dont disintegrate.

Marshal Marmonent - 6th Corps
5e Regiment de Tirailleurs de la Garde Imperiale (959)

40e Regiment d'Infanterie de Ligne (223)? 70e
121e Regiment d'Infanterie de Ligne (400)? 131e
132e Regiment d'Infanterie de Ligne (380)
142e Regiment d'Infanterie de Ligne (95)?

2e Regiment de Cuirassiers *(Probably only 1 squadron)
12e Regiment de Cuirassiers *(Probably only 1 squadron)

1er Regiment d’Artillerie de Marine
3e Regiment d’Artillerie de Marine ?

Approximately 2,000 Ifantry, 300 Cavalry and 12 guns

Tableaux par corps et par batailles des officiers tués et blessés pendant les guerres de l'Empire
29.01.1814 Brienne
5e Regiment de Tirailleurs de la Garde Imperiale (1)

01.02.1814 La Rothière
121e Regiment d'Infanterie de Ligne (1)
132e Regiment d'Infanterie de Ligne (5)
40e Regiment d'Infanterie de Ligney (2)
2e Regiment de Cuirassiers (2)

02.02.1814 Rosnay
121e Regiment d'Infanterie de Ligne (4)
5e Regiment de Tirailleurs de la Garde Imperiale (2)

*On 1st January 1814, the remains of 2nd, 3rd, 6th, 9th, 11th and 12th Cuirassiers were combined to form the 3e Provisoire Regiment de Grosse Cavaleri

Both the 121st and the 132nd were heavily engaged, afterwards in recognition of there brave stand against such a strong force Napoleon had the 132nd add "1 against 8" to their flag.
(131e or 121e, the regimental records show 121e but there is a plaque at Rosnay dedicated to the 131e).

General Wrede - Bavarians
1st Column
Austrian 1st Division of Advance Guard - Hardegg
Brigade - Geramb
Szekler Grenz Regiment [2 btns.]
Erzherzog Joseph Hussar Regiment [6 sq.]
Brigade - Mengen
Bavarian 3rd Division - La Motte

2nd Column
Bavarian 1st Division - Rechberg
Brigade - Prinz Karl
3rd Light Infantry Battalion [1 btn.]
Prinz Karl Infantry Regiment [1 btn.]
10th Augsburg National Battalion[1 btn.]
Brigade - Bayern
Brigade - Maillot
Austrian 2nd Division of Advance Guard - Splenyi

Approximately 26,500 men

The first column advanced via the main road west of Rosnay, the second column advanced via Perthes direct to Rosnay. The fields either side of the road were very marshy, and although they had started to ice over in the cold, the ground would easily give way under the weight of man making it impossible to deploy and so only the leading Brigade of each column was actively engaged.

Brigade Geramb of Hardegg Division arrived downstream of Rosnay to find the bridge only partially destroyed. 2 Batalions of the Szekler Grenz Regiment easily forced the bridge, accompanied by the Erzherzog Joseph Hussar Regiment which crossed via a ford. Marmont personally leads 3 Battalions against the right hand column and at the same time a Brigade of Curassier charged the Hussars who were thrown back into the infantry column now marching on Rosnay. The Geramb Brigade is broken and thrown back across the river for a loss of 500-600 men.

Frimont then arrives at the second bridge, initially he plans to turn the position but finds the ground is too soft, so he has to resort to a frontal assault using the Bavarian's of the Prinz Karl Brigade (Division Rechberg). The Bavarians tried to force a passage but are met with hail of musketry and the fire from 4 guns and are forced to retreat.

At around 4pm-5pm the Uhlans of Schwarzenberg Uhlan Regiment find a ford at Rances and cross.The French become aware that their position has been turned and start to pull out. Patrols sent out after 7pm can find no trace of the French.

Having left the bodies of 53 officers and 1045 men at Rosnay, Wrede returned to Brienne having completely lost touch with Marmont. Blucher's cavalry crossed by the bridge at Rosnay during the night, en route for Vitry, completely the wrong direction as Marmont had moved west to Ramerupt where he crossed the Aube.

The Allies had only started out at 8 a.m. on the 2nd February, so that there were only a few minor engagements with the Emperor's rearguard up to Lesmont, where he safely crossed the Aube and effectively destroyed the bridge preventing any crossing by the Allies. An attempt to intercept the Arcis-Troyes road at Piney with the Russian cavalry and grenadiers was beaten off by Grouchy.

A Bavarain perspective:
On 2 February, before daylight the enemy withdrew his infantry from Brienne, leaving a strong rear-guard of cavalry and artillery. The infantry marched via the main road from Paris through the village of Lesmont. By a movement combined with the corps the Crown Prince of Wurtemberg, General Wrede attacked the rear guard, drove it through Brienne and captured the city, and pursued the enemy as far as Lesmont where the French destroyed the bridge over the Aube, and formed a line behind the river.

That same night the corps of the Duke of Ragusa had moved away from the front of the Field Marshal and by a lateral movement, had moved on to the road to Vitry and Mezieres. While the Bavarian-Austrian army was marching towards Lesmont, Marshal Marmont manoevered on his right flank and threatened him by this position, this position could even have endangered the rear of the Allied army, if he had continued to move forward.

Under these circumstance the Count de Wrede decided to leave the Lesmont road to maneuver against the corps of the French general. He had occupied the village of Rosnay, on the heights of which was placed his main force, he had before him an almost flooded marshland due to the overflowing of the Voire. He had cut the bridge, and thus obtained a good position, selected by the Emperor himself!

All these obstacles made an attack against the Marshal extremely difficult. Already several attempts had been unsuccessful, and the ice was too weak under the feet of soldier which often stopped the flanks. Weapons and ammunition were wet, we could not advance on road itself.

In this state of affairs, General Count Wrede resolved to storm the enemy position. We advanced to the charge, we overcame all obstacles and difficult terrain that made an ideal defense for the enemy and captured the bridge that crossed the river into Rosnayen (the lower undestroyed bridge). We had already taken half the village when our advance was stopped at the second bridge which was broken. The enemy stood en masse across the creek, and placed in a church and houses from where they had kept up a heavy murderous fire.

Although we could not, in these circumstances, advance for the moment, about four o'clock in the evening, the cavalry found a ford (at Rances), and managed to chase the enemy along the edge of the river, the 10th Augsburg National Battalion then passed over the bridge which had been restored by placing a single board across it, and the enemy was completely expelled from the village.

Satisfied with having made him leave a position regarded as impregnable, Count Wrede did not pursue him, his plan called him at Arcis. For it to happen, he should return by the same route back to Brienne, where he slept, but as the bridge Lesmont that the enemy had destroyed, had not been restored yet, despite all the efforts we had made the movements of General Wrede was delayed twenty-four hours.

This will make a cracking scenario just the right size for 28mm tabletop.

The topography:
The general area of interest is like an inverted triangle Brienne is at the point, with Rances (right) and Betignicourt (left) marking the base line, with each side being 7km in length. Rosnay lies in the center on the base line, Perthes lies halfway along the Brienne-Rances line.

The path from Perthes to Rosnay crosses the Voire in the center of Rosnay, 1.5km downstream the main road from Brienne crosses the Voire in its immediate front is a steep hill the roads turns to pass around the hill skirting along the river bank towards Rosnay. The Voire has low banks and is lightly bordered by trees. There are buildings on the French side of the river at the Rosnay bridge but none on the Bavarian side. 3km upstream there is a bridge or ford at Rances, 3km downstream there is a bridge at Betignicourt. The Bavarians discovered the crossing at Rances at 4pm in the afternoon. The river is in full flood after the heavy rains, it is narrow but deep and unfordable in front of Rosnay, it is cold but the ice on the river won't support infantry.

View from the southern or Bavarian side across the Voire to the French position

View downstream towards the main bridge

View upstream (towards Rances)

View of the western bridge at Rosnay that was not destroyed. You can see the hill behind the bridge where the Artillery was placed and from where the Cuirassiers charged.

Mémoires du Maréchal Marmont, duc de Raguse, de 1792 à 1841. Volume 6
Historical Works, Volume 4 By Adolphe Thiers
Napoleon at Bay 1814 F Loraine Petre
Histoire de la campagne de 1814, Volume 1 By Alphonse de Beauchamp
Histoire des campagnes de 1814 et 1815 en France, Volume 1 By Frédéric de Vaudoncourt
Geschichte des Feldzuges von 1814 in dem östlichen und nördlichen Frankreich bis zur Einnahme von Paris, Karl von Damitz,

No comments: