Battle of Brienne, 29 January 1814

The battle of Brienne (29 January 1814) was Napoleon’s first major battle during the 1814 campaign in France, and was a narrow French victory that still failed to prevent the two main Allied armies from joining up.

The initial French attempt to defend their borders failed very quickly, and by late January the two main Allied armies, Blucher's Army of Silesia and Schwarzenberg's Army of Bohemia, were closing in on each other in the upper reaches of the Marne and the Aube. On 24 January Marshal Mortier held up Schwarzenberg at Bar-sur-Aube, but was then forced to retreat west towards the Seine. By 26 January Mortier had joined the Reserve at Troyes.

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

On 25 January Napoleon left Paris, and on the following day he reached his new centre of operations at Chalons-sur-Marne. He had limited numbers of troops at his immediate disposal. Victor and Marmont, with 28,000 men, were at Vitry on the Marne, south-east of Chalons. Mortier was further south at Troyes. Napoleon had Ney, with 16,000 men of the Old Guard, at Chalons.

Napoleon's first plan was to attack Blucher at St. Dizier on the Marne, but he moved too slowly. Victor had already failed to hold Blucher at St. Dizier, and on  26 January Blucher sent Sacken and Olsufiev south towards Wassy and Montier-en-Den.  Lanskoi's 2nd Hussar Division was left at St. Dizier to maintain communications between Blucher and Yorck.

On 27 January Napoleon's leading troops, Milhaud's V Cavalry Corps, hit Lanskoi at St. Dizier, and forced them to retreat south-east to Joinville. On the same day Blucher occupied Brienne. He was now aware that Napoleon was on the move, but wasn't sure exactly where he was. Schwarzenberg was also concerned by Napoleon's movements, and decided to halt around Bar-sur-Aube and prepare for a possible battle. However Wittgenstein was sent towards Joinville.

On 28 January Victor and Ney moved to Montier-en-der, while Marmont moved towards Vassy (now Wassy), further to the east (and thus on the French left).

Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt
Marshal Blücher von Wahlstatt

On the morning of 29 January the French left Montier-en-der and began to march towards Brienne. Cossacks reported their presence at Boulancourt, a minor settlement between Montier and Brienne. Blucher still wasn't entirely sure where the French were heading, and so ordered Sacken to concentrate at Lesmont (four miles to the west of Brienne), while Olsufiev remained at Brienne. Later in the morning Cossacks captured a French staff officer who contained orders to Mortier to move north-east to Troyes to close up with the right wing of Napoleon's main army, and indicatatd that the main army was heading for Brienne. This gave Blucher time to recall Sacken from Lesmont, after ordering him to destroy the bridge there.

The battle began with a cavalry clash late in the morning. Blucher had Pahlen's cavalry stationed near Perthes-les-Brienne, north of Brienne, Scherbatov's Cossacks towards Maizieres-les-Brienne, north-east of Brienne and four Russian Jager regiments (also under Scherbatov) behind Mezieres. Pire's 9th Light Cavalry Division attacked these leading Allied forces, and pushed them back to Perthes. Blucher sent reinforcements to Scherbatov, and he took up a new position on the road back to Brienne. Grouchy arrived with the rest of the French cavalry at about the same time as Sacken's leading troops arrived from Lesmont. Sacken's leading troops were posted on the road north from Brienne to Lassicourt, while Pahlen moved back to Perthes. Grouchy ordered an attack, and pushed Pahlen back towards Brienne. Pahlen fell back towards the town, where he was protected by Russian infantry squadrons. At this point Napoleon decided to pause and wait for his infantry to arrive.

By the time the French were ready to attack, the Allies were also present in greater numbers. On their left Sacken was still approaching from Lesmont, although his lead troops had already arrived. Scherbatov's 4th and 34th Jagers was in the north of Brienne, on the road to Lassicourt.

Next in line was Olsufiev's 9th Corps, on the road that ran south-east from Brienne towards Bur-sur-Aube.

Brienne itself was spread out from north to south, with Brienne-le-Chateau in the north and the smaller Brienne-le-Vieille to the south. The château itself is on the western side of Brienne-le-Chateau.

On the far right Karpov's Cossacks were stretched out to the east, on the road through Chaumenil, La Chaise and Soulains.

Portrait of Marshal Michel Ney (1769-1815)
Portrait of
Marshal Michel Ney

The main part of the battle began soon after 3pm, when Napoleon sent a column from Victor's corps, commanded by Victor's chief of staff General Chateau, to try and get around the north-western side of Brienne and take the château. The main body of Victor's II corps then reached the field, and General Duhesme was ordered to attack Brienne to the left of the first column. This attack began well, but was then hit by forty squadrons of cavalry and forced into a hasty retreat. Just as Duhesme's attack began, Ney began to arrive with the Guard. General Decouz's 2nd Voltigeur (Young Guard) Division was ordered to attack on the French left. Ney took command of this attack, which at first made good progress. The defeat of Duhesme's column forced Ney to halt his attack and withdraw a short distance.

The main French success of the day came on their right, where Chateau's column managed to capture the chateau. Blucher and Gneisenau only narrowly escaped, leaving the castle courtyard by one gate as the French broke through another. The loss of Blucher would have greatly affected the rest of the campaign, so this has to count as one of the great 'missed chances' of 1814.

The battle continued for some time, with the French unable to take Brienne town and the Allies unable to retake the Chateau. Overnight Blucher disengaged, and retreated east/ south-east towards Schwarzenberg's main army. The battle had been a narrow French victory, but Napoleon had failed in his main aim of breaking into the Allied line and trapping at least part of Blucher's army. The French lost around 3,000 men in the battle, the Allies around 4,000, and the victory greatly boosted the morale of Napoleon's inexperienced recruits.

The biggest disappointment for Napoleon was his failure to prevent Blucher and Schwarzenberg uniting their armies. For the next couple of days Napoleon remained largely static south of Brienne, while he attempted to work out what the Allies were doing. This temporarily handed the initiative to the Allies, and on 1 February they launched their only combined attack on Napoleon's army (Battle of La Rothiere, 1 February 1814).

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (14 March 2016), Battle of Brienne, 29 January 1814 ,

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