Gebhard Leberecht, Prince von Blücher, 1742-1819

1806 - War of the Fourth Coalition
German campaign of 1813
France, 1814
Waterloo Campaign
Summary

Gebhard Lebrecht Fürst Blücher von Wahlstatt was the most famous Prussian commander of the Napoleonic Wars and played an important part in the revival of Prussian military power in 1813-1815 and in the campaigns in Germany, France and of Waterloo.

Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt
Marshal Blücher
von Wahlstatt

Blücher was born at Rostock in Mecklenburg on 16 December 1742, and in 1757 joined the Mörner Hussars, part of the Swedish Army. At the start of the Seven Years War (1756-1763) Blücher fought against the Prussians, but in 1760 he was captured by soldiers from the Prussian 8th Regiment of Hussars. Colonel Wilhelm Sebastian von Belling, the commander of the regiment, convinced him to switch sides, and he enlisted in the Hussars. He fought with Belling during the rest of the Seven Years War, but after the war promotion was slow. In 1773 one of his rivals was promoted, and Blücher resigned in protest. Frederick the Great is said to have told him to go to the devil, and Blücher's military career was put on hold for the rest of Frederick's life. During this gap he became a farmer, and in June 1773 he married Karolina von Mehling. Between then and 1787 they had seven children.

In 1786 Frederick the Great died and was succeeded by Frederick William II. Blücher was able to rejoin the Prussian Army in 1787, and was immediately promoted to major in the 8th Hussars. He was promoted to colonel in 1790, but suffered a blow when his wife Karolina died in June 1791.

War of the First Coalition - Rhine Front Overview
War of the First Coalition -
Rhine Front Overview

Prussia was soon drawn into the French Revolutionary Wars. Blücher's regiment took part in the Rhine campaigns of 1793-94, where he gained a reputation as an aggressive cavalry commander. He replaced Colonel Johann Wilhelm Graf von Goltz as commander of the 8th Husars in the summer of 1793, and inflicted a notable defeat on a French force at Landau on 28 May 1794, during a period when the Prussians were occupying a position at the northern end of the Vosges mountains. Soon after this he was promoted to Major General.

In 1795 he remarried, to Katharina von Colomb.  In the same year the Prussians withdrew from the War of the First Coalition (Peace of Basle). In 1801 he was promoted to lieutenant governor, and he was also appointed governor of Münster.

1806 - War of the Fourth Coalition

Between 1795 and 1806 Prussia stayed out of the wars against France, and never joined the Second or Third Coalitions. Despite this, there was always an active pro-war party in Prussia, and Blücher was one of its most vocal members. When Prussia did finally decide to go to war, it was too late to cooperate with the Austrians, who had been forced to make peace after Austerlitz. The Fourth Coalition included Russia and Britain, but the Prussians chose to fight the French alone, without making any attempt to unite with the Russians. The Prussians were still convinced that their army was the best in Europe, but the reality was less impressive. The high command was elderly, with command split between the Duke of Brunswick and Prince Hohenlohe. King Frederick Wilhelm III was often indecisive, and in this case he was unable to persuade his two commanders to adopt a single plan, or even a single commander. After advancing into Saxony, the Prussians paused while they decided what to do next. Brunswick commanded the main army, while Hohenlohe led a separate flank guard. The Prussians failed to appreciate that Napoleon would probably move quickly, and were caught by surprise when he attacked them from the south. After a brief campaign the Prussians suffered two defeats on the same day. At Jena (14 October 1806) Napoleon defeated Hohenlohe's smaller army, although not easily. At Auerstädt Marshal Davout inflicted a humiliating defeat on Brunswick's much larger army.

At the start of the campaign Blücher was given command of the Advance Guard Division, mainly made up of light troops. His division fought at Auerstädt (14 October 1806), one of two Prussian defeats on the same day. Early in the battle he took command of ten squadrons of cavalry from Schmettau's division that carried out one of the first attacks on the French, but was repulsed. Blücher had a horse shot under him during this fighting, and his cavalry force withdrew in some disorder. Towards the end of the battle Blücher was with King Frederick William III when he decided to order a retreat. Blücher attempted to convince the King to continue the fight, as the Prussians still hadn't used one third of their troops, but the King insisted on pulling back to try and join up with Hohenlohe's part of the army (already defeated at Jena). Blücher formed a rearguard during part of the retreat, but this was overwhelmed by three French divisions (led by Gudin's division).

Blücher escaped from the battlefield, and eventually became joint commander (with the duke of Weimar) of around 22,000 troops. Their aim was to reach Lübeck, where they hoped to find either Swedish reinforcements or ships that could take them to Britain. Bernadotte and Soult were in close pursuit. The Prussians reached Lubeck on 5 November, but the French attacked and stormed the city on 6 November. Scharnhorst was forced to surrender at Lübeck. Blücher managed to slip out of the city, but his troops lacked any supplies, and he was forced to surrender on the following day. Blücher's force was one of the few Prussian units that had kept their disciple during the retreat.

Between 1807 and 1813 Blücher was in the background. His behaviour was often erratic, and he thus didn’t play a major part in the reform of the Prussian army, which was instead led by Gneisenau and Scharnhorst. Blücher did spend some time as governor of Pomerania, before the French insisted on his removal in 1812.

During the invasion of Russia in 1812 Prussia was forced to act as a French ally, and even provided an army corps which operated on the northern flanks of the invasion. This was always an uneasy relationship, and elements within the Prussian army were always looking for a way out. On 25 General Yorck's corps was isolated by the Russians. After several days of negotiations Yorck signed the Convention of Tauroggen, in which his corps became neutral.

This was the first stage towards Prussia changing sides. On 28 February 1813 the Treaty of Kalisch saw Prussia enter into an anti-French alliance with the Russians, and on 17 March 1813 King Frederick William III declared war on France.

Although Blücher hadn't been terribly active during the years of peace, Scharnhorst was convinced that he was the only choice to command the reformed Prussian army in the field. Scharnhorst was appointed as his chief of staff, creating both a very successful partnership and creating the template used by the Prussian and Germany armies for the next century.

German campaign of 1813

Blücher commanded part of the Prussian contingent in General Wittgenstein's army in the spring campaign of 1813. Early in the campaign he moved to Dresden , hoping to convince the Saxons to change sides. This effort failed, and so he moved on towards Leipzig and a union with Russian troops.

His forces led the Allied attack at the battle of Lützen (2 May 1813), and when the battle seemed to heading towards a crisis he personally took to the field to lead an attack. He was wounded during this fighting, as was Scharnhorst, and the French still won the battle, but this time the Allies were able to retreat in good order, and the French were unable to conduct an effective pursuit. The biggest loss to the Allies was Scharnhorst, who later died when his wounds became infected.

Blücher commanded the Prussians, again under Wittgenstein, at the battle of Bautzen (20-21 May 1813), a French victory which came close to being the decisive battle Napoleon was seeking. Blücher was posted on the Allied right, which made him the target of Napoleon's flanking movement. On the second day of the battle Ney's flank attack briefly put Blücher under attack from three sides, but the Prussians were able to retreat safely. Napoleon was unable to gain his decisive victory, and his subordinates were unable to take advantage of the victories that he did win.

When the fighting resumed in the autumn of 1813 Blücher was given command of the Army of Silesia, the middle of the three Allied armies fielded against Napoleon (Crown Prince Bernadotte commanded the Army of the North and Schwarzenberg the Army of Bohemia). Gneisenau replaced Scharnhorst as his chief of staff, a relation that would continue to the battle of Waterloo. The Allies adopted the 'Trachenberg Plan' - they would attempt to avoid fighting Napoleon in person, and retreat when he appeared, but instead concentrate their efforts against his subordinates. This strategy would prove to be very effective, both in 1813 and in France in 1814. Napoleon was still able to win battlefield victories when he was present with the army, but his subordinates were generally unsuccessful, and their defeats undid the benefits of Napoleon's victories.  

At the start of the autumn campaign Napoleon intended to attack Blücher, but the Prussians withdrew, denying him that battle. Napoleon was then forced to leave this front to deal with a new threat to Dresden, posed by Schwarzenberg's Austrians. Marshal Macdonald was left to stop Blücher, but despite having 100,000 men at his disposal he suffered a heavy defeat at the battle of the Katzbach (26 August 1813), where Blücher's aggressive style played a major part in the Prussian victory. This forced Napoleon to rejoin Macdonald, but although he was able to restore the situation, he was unable to force Blücher to fight. Once again Napoleon had to return to Macdonald's aid. Once again Blücher retreated without a battle.

Eventually Napoleon was unable to prevent the three Allied armies from uniting, and the two sides met in the decisive battle of Leipzig (16-19 October 1813). Blücher's army played a major part in this battle, which ended as a massive Allied victory. On the first day of the battle Blücher's men defeated Marmont at Mockern, and he was promoted to Field Marshal in reward. This victory allowed Blücher to join the fighting at Leipzig itself. On 18 October he attacked from the north-west, as part of the general Allied assault that convinced Napoleon that he would have to retreat on the following day. Napoleon suffered very heavy losses at Leipzig, and was forced to retreat out of Germany for the last time.

France, 1814

Towards the end of 1813 the Allies decided to invade France in the winter, to avoid giving Napoleon the time he needed to build yet another new army. Blücher's Army of Silesia, now 100,000 strong (with large Russian contingents), was to cross the Rhine between Coblenz and Mannerheim and pin Napoleon in place. Prince Schwarzenberg's largely Austrian Army of Bohemia was to advance from Switzerland to threaten Paris and Napoleon's right flank. To the north Bernadotte's Army of the North was to operate in the Low Countries. The Allies outnumbered the French, but suffered from having too many commanders in the field - Schwarzenberg was accompanied by Tsar Alexander and King Frederick William III. This would give Napoleon his brief moments of success, but the presence of the monarchs also ended up forcing Schwarzenberg to be more aggressive than normal, and thus played a part in the French defeat.

Battles of the French Campaign of 1814
Battles of the
French Campaign
of 1814

The first of Blücher's men crossed the border on 29 December, and he crossed the Rhine on New Year's Eve. He nearly caught Marmont at Kaiserslautern, and the French border defences crumbled. Blücher's men crossed the Meuse on 22 January and his advance guard crossed the Marne on 23 January.

The 1814 campaign fell into six sections. In the first Napoleon attempted to defeat Blücher before he could join up with Schwarzenberg, but failed. In the second the Allies split up to advance on Paris along two routes. Blücher allowed his army to get split up, and suffered a series of heavy defeats (The Six Days). In the third Napoleon concentrated on Schwarzenberg, allowing Blücher to gather reinforcements. In the fourth Napoleon turned on Blücher once again, but this time with less success. The fifth was a renewed attack on Schwarzenberg, which almost ended in disaster for the French. Finally Napoleon decided to head east to cut the Allies lines of communication, but they ignored him, and instead attacked Paris.

The first phase of the campaign, Napoleon's attempt to prevent the two main Allied armies from uniting, failed almost before it began. By the time Napoleon was ready to move, Blücher's main force was already at Brienne, between Napoleon and Schwarzenberg. Blücher was also helped by the capture of a set of French orders to Marshal Mortier. The French clashed with a largely Russian force from Blücher's rearguard at St. Dizier (28 January 1814), and won a minor victory at Brienne (29 January 1814). This was almost a major victory, as Blücher and Gneisenau were nearly captured in the battle at Brienne, but they escaped just ahead of the French). The two Allied armies then united, and Napoleon was lucky to escape after a clash with elements from both armies at La Rothiere (1 February 1814).

The second stage of the campaign saw the Allies split up. Schwarzenberg was to advance down the Seine, while Blücher moved north to get closer to his reinforcements, and then advanced down the Marne. This allowed a gap to develop between the two armies, made worse by Blücher's more rapid pace. For a few days Napoleon wasn't sure where Blücher had gone, but on 5 February his arrival of the Marne was reported, as was General Yorck's capture of Chalons-sur-Marne. Napoleon realised that he would have to move north to deal with Blücher, who posed the bigger threat to Paris.

Napoleon's task was made easier on 9 February. Schwarzenberg expected to fight a battle on the Seine, and asked Blücher to attack south to help. Blücher ordered part of his force to move to Sezanne to prepare for that attack, but late in the day he discovered that Napoleon was already at Sezanne. Instead of concentrating his troops, Blücher decided to try and surround Napoleon. This was exactly what Napoleon wanted. On 10 February, at the start of the 'Six Days campaign', Napoleon defeated Olsufiev's isolated corps at Champaubert (10 February 1814). Blücher, who was only a few miles to the east, heard the gunfire, but was convinced that Napoleon was already beaten, and there was thus no danger. When news of the defeat reached Blücher he realised that his army was dangerously split up. Yorck's Prussians and Sacken's Russians were now isolated to the west of Napoleon. Blücher ordered them to unite at Montmirail and then fight their way east through Napoleon's lines to rejoin the main force. This produced the battle of Montmirail (11 February), where Napoleon defeated Sacken's isolated corps. Sacken and Yorck then moved north to Chateau-Thierry on the Meuse. Napoleon had ordered Macdonald to capture Chateau-Thierry, a move that would have forced Sacken and Yorck to stand and fight south of the river. Macdonald had failed in this and so the Allies were able to slip across the Meuse. The resulting battle of Chateau-Thierry (12 February 1814) was thus a minor rearguard action.

Elsewhere Napoleon's subordinates were struggling against Schwarzenberg, and Napoleon realised that he would have to abandon the fight against Blücher and move south. Blücher came to the same conclusion, and attempted to intercept Napoleon as he moved back. This led to another French victory, when Napoleon caught Blücher at Vauchamps (14 February).

Freidrich Wilhelm Graf Bülow von Dennewitz
Freidrich Wilhelm
Graf Bülow
von Dennewitz

After this defeat Blücher was forced to retreat, leaving Napoleon free to turn south to inflict a series of defeats on Schwarzenberg. Blücher was able to gather up reinforcements. After the battle of Montereau (18 February 1814), Schwarzenberg retreated along the south side of the Seine, and ordered Blücher to move south to join him. Blücher headed towards Mery, fully expected to fight a battle. Instead he found himself at a full scale council of war (22 February) in which Schwarzenberg was given permission to retreat further. Blücher was given command of Winzingerode's and Bulow's corps from the Army of the North, but returned north furious that the chance of a battle had gone. On his way north he briefly had the chance of a battle against Marmont near Sezanne, but Marmont wasn't foolish enough to risk this and escaped from the trap.

The fourth stage of the campaign saw Blücher move further north to join up with his new troops. On 26 February Blücher reached La-Ferte-Gaucher on the Grand Morin river, and advanced down river towards Meaux. This move forced Schwarzenberg to resume his own advance.

On 27 February news of Blücher's advance reached Napoleon. He abandoned his plans for an attack on Schwarzenberg, and instead turned north to try and trap Blücher between his own army and Marmont and Mortier.  

On 1 March Blücher was trying to catch Marmont and Mortier around Meaux, but then discovered that Napoleon was already at Sezanne, near the head of the Grand Morin. Realising he was in a trap, Blücher decided to head north and try to find Winzingerode and Bulow. Blücher decided to head for Laon, in the hope that his new subordinates were somewhere in that area.

On 3 March Winzingerode and Bulow captured Soissons, with its bridge intact. Blücher was able to cross the river, and unite his army. Napoleon had missed his chance to defeat Blücher's army in detail, but he was still convinced that the Prussians were retreating back towards Belgium and decided to push on to the north. Blücher also misjudged the situation at this point. He was convinced that Napoleon had a much larger army than was the case.

Despite this, Blücher decided to try and ambush Napoleon on the plateau west of Craonne (6 March 1814). Part of his army was posted on the plateau itself, where it was to pin down the French. A second force was to hit the French from the north. Napoleon also planned to outflank his enemies, this time a double envelopment. Neither plan really worked, and neither set of flank attacks was carried out, despite yet another attempt by Blücher to lead an attack in person. Blücher then concentrated his army around Laon, where he decided to make a stand.

Napoleon wasn't expecting to run into Blücher's main army at Laon (8-9 March 1814). He advanced in two separate columns, with his main army to the west and Marmont's isolated division approaching from the south-east. The battle began with a series of French attacks on the Allied position south of Laon. When the early morning mist cleared Blücher refused to believe that the small army he saw was Napoleon's entire force, as he was still convinced that the French must have had 90,000 men to risk the attack at Craonne. In reality Napoleon only had 40,000 men with him and another 14,000 with Marmont.

Blücher missed a chance to attack Napoleon's main force, but when he realised how isolated Marmont was he decided to attack him instead. Yorck and Kleist were ordered to carry out this attack, and they inflicted a very heavy defeat on Marmont. Blücher then issued orders for a general offensive on the following day, involving most of his army, but that night he fell seriously ill. This caused chaos - Gneisenau cancelled all of the attacks. Kleist resigned his command in the belief that Gneisenau was hiding Blücher's death and the next most senior officer, General Langeron, refused to take the command. As a result Napoleon was able to slip away to the south.

The fifth stage of the campaign saw Napoleon attempt to defeat Schwarzenberg once again. It began with Napoleon's last significant victory of the campaign, the defeat of General St. Priest at Rheims. This worried the Allies, and even convinced Blücher to retreat. Napoleon headed south, but unexpectedly ran into Schwarzenberg's main army at Arcis-sur-Aube (20-21 March 1814), and was lucky to escape.

The sixth and final stage of the campaign began when Napoleon decided to move east and cut the Allied lines of communication. In earlier campaigns this threat might have forced the Allies to retreat, but this time they were more bold. Schwarzenberg decided to ignore Napoleon, unite with Blücher, and advance on Paris. On the way north he defeated Marmont and Mortier at La-Fere-Champenoise (25 March), eliminating one force that might have helped defend Paris. On 28 March Blücher and Schwarzenberg's forces were united at Meaux, from where they marched on Paris. Blücher commanded the Allied right for the attack on Paris, with the task of taking the heights of Montmartre and Belleville. His forces entered the battle of Montmartre quite late, having had to cross the Ourcq canal before they could attack, but the French position in Paris was weak. That night the French commanders entered into negotiations, and on the following morning the city surrendered. A few days later Napoleon was forced to abdicate for the first time.  

Waterloo Campaign

After Napoleon's stunningly successful return from exile on Elba, Blücher was appointed commander of the Prussian army in the Netherlands.

Napoleon's plan in 1815 was to keep Wellington and Blücher apart, defeat each of them in turn, and then concentrate on the Austrian and Russian armies that were being raised against him. The campaign began fairly well for Napoleon. He moved quickly, catching Wellington by surprise. He then split his army, sending Ney to take Quatre Bras and hold up Wellington, while he led the main part of his army against Blücher at Ligny (16 June 1815). Blücher was only able to get three of his four corps into action at Ligny, and Napoleon won his last battlefield victory. Once again Blücher attempted to save the day by leading a cavalry charge in person, and was pinned to the ground by his own horse. He was this injured at a key moment in the campaign, briefly leaving Gneisenau in command (for some time he was actually missing). However the Prussians were able to stay within marching distance of Wellington, who had been more successful at Quatre Bras.

Napoleon now switched focus, sending Grouchy to try and keep the Prussians occupied while he focused on Wellington. Once again the result was two battles on the same day. At Waterloo (18 June 1815) Wellington came under increasingly heavy pressure, while at Wavre a Prussian holding force kept Grouchy occupied while Blücher marched his main force west to Waterloo (after overruling Gneisenau, who had wanted to withdraw and reorganise the army after Ligny). The Prussians began to arrive at Waterloo at about 1.30pm, and after that Napoleon was involved in a race against time, his only hope of victory being to break Wellington's lines before the Prussians arrived in strength. Blücher's arrival played a major role in the eventual Allied victory. His troops then played the main role in the pursuit after the battle, and were the first Allied troops to enter Paris.

Summary

Blücher retired soon after the end of the Napoleonic Wars. He died at home in Silesia on 12 September 1819. Blücher was not an especially imaginative tactician, but he was a bold and aggressive leader, known to his men as 'Marschall Vorwärts' (Marshal Forwards). He was popular with his men, and a great boost for morale. The 1814 campaign shows that he was willing to retreat when needed, although not for too long, while his performance in 1806 shows that he could maintain discipline in his army. His instinct was always to attack, and this played a vital part in the Allied successes in Germany in 1813, in France in 1814 and at Waterloo in 1815.

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (31 October 2016), Gebhard Leberecht, Prince von Blücher, 1742-1819 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/people_blucher.html

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