Thursday, August 05, 2010

Action at Choignes 18th January 1814

A forgotten action that took place in the area of Laville-aux-Bois, Biesles and Choignes between the Wurtemburg IV Corps (13,000) and the 1e Division of Friant's Old Guard (5,900 men) with the 3e Division of Laferrière-Leveque Young Guard (2,500 men) led by Marshal Morier.

Mortier was retiring in front of Schwarzenberg's Army Of Bohemia. After delaying Gyulay at Langres, Mortier retired toward Chaumont, there he repulsed the Wurttemburgers before continuing to retire on Bar-sure-Aube.

Langres 17th January 1814
On 16th leaving the bivouac fires burning and a rearguard in Langres, the bearskins filed through Langres around midnight. The rearguard followed at 6:00am and took post at Vesagines halfway between Langres and Chaumont. That evening Mortier quartered at Chaumont. On the left bank of the Marne one detachment occupied the hills of Marnay which dominated the river crossings between Vesagines and Chaumont. Any Allied force pursuing from Langres would have to cross the defile at Marnay, which dominated the river. On the right bank, a second detachment of Dragoons and infantry secured Laville-aux-Bois on the Montigny-le-Roi to Chaumont road. Patrols from this second detachment detected Wurttemberg cavalry on the road less than 10 miles southesast of Chaumont at the town of Bieseles.

By the night of the 17th the Guard reached Chaumont. Mortier reported his troops were exhausted particularly the Dragoons and Chasseurs-a-Cheval. He summoned three battalions (1800 men) of the 113e Regiment from Troyes to Chaumont as support but they were 50 miles away, he also had no idea what had happened to the Christiani's 2e Old Guard Division.

On the Allied side the entire day of the 17th passed without Gyulay realising that the French had retreated. Around 2pm an ADC to Schwarzenberg road to the city gates to open negotiations, finding no guards he entered the suburburbs and learnt of Mortier's departure. A stunned Gyulay finally got into action and at 4:30pm his advanced guard deployed at the "Dijon" Gate, by 6:00 Langres had capitulated.

Gyulay pushed the 3rd Curaissier Division and Crenville's light infantry division through Langres to Humes on the road to Chaumont. The main body of the III Corps camped at Langres. Colloredo's I Corps moved into position between Langres and Longeau, where also Wimpffen 2nd Division arrived from Dijon. Gyulay however failed to notify the Wurttemburgers of Mortiers retreat.

In fact the Wurttemberers did not hear of the retreat until the early hours of the 18th. Fredrick William had spent the 17th leading the IV Corps from Bourbonne-les-Bains to Montigny-le-Roi in compliance with Schwarzenbergs order to reach Langres by 1:00pm on the 18th.

The advance guard under Stockmeyer reached Frecourt on the road from Montigny-le-Roi to Langres. Jetts' Cavalry Brigade of 8 Squadrons and one horse battery turned on to the Montigny-le-Roi to Chaumont road to protect the Corps flank stopping at Biesles, he reported that the French had evacuated Chaumont.

The Action at Chaumont/Choignes on 18th January 1814
With Gyulay having lost contact with Mortier, Schwarzenberg assumed that he had retreated through Chaumont and kept on going north, he expected to take Chaumont as easily as Langres.

He issued fresh orders for the 18th. The IV Corps and 3 regiments of the 3rd Curassier Division would advance on Chaumont. As the Wurttembergers marched on the right bank of the Marne along the Montigny-le-Roi to Chaumont, the Russian heavy cavalry would advance along the Langres-Chaumont down the left bank to the defile at Marnay. Behind the Russians Guylay would concentrate his corps at Humes while Colloredo remained between Longeau and Langres.

The Wurttembergers assembled before dawn on the 18th, to form the advanced guard Jett's brigade was reinforced by one infantry regiment. Jett commenced the advance at 7:00am in a downpour. Stockmeyer who should have followed Jett mistakenly continued his advance on Langres. The time spent in correcting Stockmeyer then delayed the main body of the corps which was bringing up the rear.

The two squadrons that formed Jett's vanguard proceeded towards Chaumont. Passing through Biesles around noon they clashed with French cavalry and infantry at Laville-aux-Bois. Prinz Fredrick William who joined the advance guard rushed forward the 4th cavalry Regiment followed by the 2nd Cavalry Regiment and the Horse Artillery. Reaching Laville-aux-Bois the Crown Prince charged the French left flank and threatened to envelop their position. The arrival of superior numbers force the French to yield the road, retreat through Laville-aux-Bois and recross the Marne to Chaumont's suburb of Choignes. Two French battalions posted on the right bank covered the cavalry's passage and halted the Wurttembergers pursuit.

Chaumont stood on a hill overlooking the left bank of the Marne. As for man made defenses, crumbling ramparts and a trench extended across the city's eastern and southern sides. Nature provided Chaumont's best protection. The city was situated on a peninsular surrounded by the Marne and Suize Rivers which merged north of the city. The steep banks and a considerable depth of both rivers posed difficult obstacles, particularly as the Marne was flooding. Two stone bridges spanned the Marne, one at Choignes and the other further north directly across from Chaumont. Heavy artillery covered the approaches to both crossings, which were guarded by strong infantry posts. A rearguard at Chamarandes held the road from Langres on the left bank.

Mortier initially though the Allies were conducting a strong reconaisance so moved three batteries - two horse and one foot - to the left bank of the Marne to keep the Wurttembergers at a respectful distance. While the French positioned there batteries and unlimbered the guns the Wurttemberg 3rd Cavalry Regiment came up followed by Jett's light infantry. The soldier continued their advance on the Montigny-le-Roi to Chaumont road to the point where the lane leading to Choignes veered from the main road. Behind them the 7th Infantry Regiment continued along the main road to a hill facing the northern bridge directly opposite Chaumont where the regiment halted just outside of Mortier's artillery range. During this time Franquermont gradually brought up the main body of the corps to support the advance guard. Seeing the Allied infantry arrive, Mortier pulled back his two battalions to the left bank.

To take Choignes, the 1st Battalion of the 9th Jager Regiment moved through a gorge north of the lane that led to the bridge at Choignes. Two Wurttemberg horse batteries unlimbered across from Chaumont to answer the French artillery. Despite the fire of the French batteries, which Mortier claimed to have "great effect", the jager reached Choignes's bridge, charged across and entered the portion of the suburb on the left bank of the Marne. Once across the bridge, they received fire from the houses on both sides of the street. Unable to counterfire because of the heavy rains that soaked their cartridges the jager were forced to clear the French house by house with bayonet. Although the battalion managed to take the village for a moment, Mortier had dispatched a single battalion of 400 Old Guard Grenadiers to deal with them, the grenadiers-a-pied of the Old Guard advanced from Chaumont, fixed their bayonets and charged into the disorganized Wurttembergers. No match for the Imperial Guard the Wurttemberg light infantry broke. The Guard drove a good number of the Allied soldiers into the river, the violent current of which claimed many. According to Mortier's after action report, Allied corpses littered both the village and bridge. His grenadiers took sixty prisoners in the process, while purportedly suffering only five wounded.

Elsewhere, Duka had dispatched six squadrons along the old Roman road that ran along the left bank of the Suize to reach Chaumont though this river valley. Although the reasons are unclear, this mission did not succeed. With his remaining ten squadrons, Duka moved north on the main Langres-Chaumont road. Outside of Vesagines, the Russian cavalry encountered enemy vedettes. The French conducted a slow, fighting withdrawal to Marnay's defile; infantry waited to ambush Duka's squadrons where the road narrowed between the hills of the left bank and the Marne. More accustomed to shock tactics than the duties of light cavalry, the curassiers imprudently charged into the tight embanked valley. Greeted by a strong fusillade from the hills that dominated the defile, the Russians feel back on Rolamport after losing several men and requested the support of the Austrian infantry. Gyulay complied that same night, sending one battalion, one half battery, and one light cavalry squadron to open the road the next day.
After waiting in vain for the anticipated Russian diversion, Fredick William postponed any further operations His enter corps had arrived but reconnaissance revealed the overall strength of Mortiers position. In view of the Guards apparent commitment to a serious resistance, the crown prince refused to accept a frontal assault until the III Corps advanced along the left bank of the Marne to assail Chaumont from the South. Although he had not received any word from Gyulay, the Wurttembergerer hoped the advance would take place on the next day, the 18th. With this in mind he sought to fix the French at Chaumont until the III Corps could assault Mortiers exposed right flank. For the remainder of the 18th, the French and Wurttemberg gunners engaged in an artillery duel that tested the mettle of the latter's horse batteries, which could barely stand against Mortier's heavier guns. The French made a few attempts to retake the the portion of Choignes on the right bank of the Marne but the charge across the bridge proved too costly. By dusk, flames engulfed the suburb and combat ended. Fredreick Willaim's headquarters passed the night at Bielses with the main body of the corps withdrawing into tight quarters between that town  and Laville-aux-Bois. Jett's advanced guard maintained  its position on the right bank of the Marne and spent  a miserable winter night bivouacked in streaming rain and on ground so drenched that the mens sunk into the mud up to their shins.

Mortier decided around 3:00am on the 19th to withdraw via Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises towards Bar-sur-Aube to await reinforcements, the rear guard left at 5:00am and the first Wurttemberg cavalry entered Chaumont at 8:00am and the town capitulated. Once again the Allies lost touch with Mortier and couldn't find any trace of which direction he had retreated in.

Choignes which had been shelled by both sides was a burnt out ruin.

According Litre (note p.20) "we" lost less than five hundred men and "they" lost fifteen hundred.

According to von Hoen ("Hauptarmée 1814", p.22), French 1200 losses, 900 Allied casualties.

The day after
The headquarters of the Bohemian army moved to Langres on the 20th, but the Württembergers remained for five days in Chaumont trying to recover from effects of the cold and wet weather.

The movements of the Austrian corps Gyulay
The Austrian Corps under Gyulay had occupied Langres on 17th January but on 18th January left to pursue Mortier along the left bank of the Marne on the road to Chaumont. At Versaignes-sur-Marne, they caught up to the French rearguard and pursued them as far as the village of Marnay-sur-Marne. As night fell they ceased the pursuit. The next day Gyulay learned that the Wurttemberg troops had already occupied Chaumont, and that the French had moved on in haste. His forces moved a little closer to Chaumont halting between the towns of Richebourg and Foulain.

OOB - Forces around Chaumont on the 18th

Another view of the bridge Choignes. The Wurtembergers, coming from the Bourbonne-les-Bains - Montigny-le-Roi - Chaumont road, arrived to sieze the bridge before being driven off near this wooded hillside.

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