They were again advancing on converging lines, this time with their eyes on Paris. Schwarzenberg literally stole a march on the French by crossing the Rhine at Basel with 160,000 men, violating Swiss neutrality with the happy connivance of Bernese oligarchs; moving rapidly through the cantons, taking undefended Geneva, and emerging into France a hundred miles farther west than the French had expected; and hurrying north toward Nancy in the hope of joining Blücher, or coordinating with him there. Napoleon had ordered French armies to drop their local campaigns in Italy and southeast France and march north to intercept Schwarzenberg, or at least slow his advance; but Eugène was tied up by Austrians, and Soult had his hands full with Wellington.
Meanwhile Blücher, with his “Army of Silesia” still 60,000 strong, crossed the Rhine at Mainz, Mannheim, and Coblenz, and advanced almost unopposed to Nancy, whose rulers and populace received him and his Prussian troops as deliverers from Napoleonic tyranny.24 Bernadotte, having lost his hope of being chosen to succeed Bonaparte, had left the Allies after Leipzig, to beat the Danes into ceding Norway to Sweden (January 14, 1814); that done, he and his army joined Blücher in the drive on Paris.
The French forces that Napoleon had left in eastern France dared not confront either Blücher or Schwarzenberg. Ney retreated west from Nancy, Mortier from Langres, Marmont from Metz, and awaited the coming of Napoleon.
He brought with him, to his new headquarters at Châlons-sur-Marne (only ninety-five miles from Paris), some 60,000 recruits; adding these to the 60,000 survivors of Leipzig under Ney, Marmont, and Mortier, he had a total of 120,000 with whom to stop Blücher and Schwarzenberg’s total of 220,000. He was limited to a policy of keeping the Allied armies from merging, avoiding confrontation with Schwarzenberg, and stopping or delaying their advance upon Paris by nibbling victories won over Allied divisions caught off guard or far enough away from their central command to be attacked without engaging their main forces. The campaign of 1814 was one of Napoleon’s most brilliant in strategy, but also—because of the dearth of reinforcements—one of the most costly in mistakes. Blücher too made many mistakes, but he was the most indomitable and resourceful of all those generals who now or later opposed Napoleon. Schwarzenberg was more cautious, partly by temperament, partly because he carried Czar Alexander and Emperor Francis II in his train.
Some initial victories gave Napoleon undue confidence. He caught Blücher’s men dining or napping at Brienne (January 29, 1814), defeated them, and came near to capturing Blücher himself. They retreated, and Napoleon was too wise to follow them, for his own army had lost 4,000 men, and he too had a narrow escape: a Prussian was approaching him with drawn saber when General Gourgeaud shot the impertinent fellow dead. Napoleon grieved over the damage the battle had done to the town and its famous school, where he had received his scientific education and his military training; he promised to restore them after the invaders had been driven from France.25
He had little time for reminiscence; Schwarzenberg had rushed up to buttress Blücher, and suddenly Napoleon’s 46,000 victors found themselves almost surrounded by 100,000 Austrians, Prussians, and Russians at La Rothière (February 1). Napoleon had no choice but to fight; he so ordered, and commanded in person. The battle was almost equal, but equal losses were disastrous for the French, and the Emperor led them in retreat to Troyes. Blücher, restless with Schwarzenberg’s cautious advance, separated from him and decided to follow his own route and pace to Paris via the Marne while the Austrians proceeded along the Seine. Allied officers were so confident of victory that they made engagements to meet at the Palais-Royal in the coming week.26
After giving his wounded army a week’s rest, Napoleon assigned part of it to Victor and Oudinot to retard Schwarzenberg, and himself marched with 60,000 men through the swamps of St.-Gond as a shortcut to Champaubert. There they caught up with Blücher’s rear, and Marmont led the French to a decisive victory (February 10). Pushing on, they met, a day later, another portion of Blücher’s army at Montmirail; Napoleon and Blücher were both present, but Marmont again was the hero. On February 14 the main forces clashed in a larger combat at Vauchamps, and Napoleon guided his now more confident army to victory. In four days Blücher had lost 30,000 men.27 Napoleon sent 8,000 prisoners to be paraded through Paris to restore the morale of the citizens.28
However, Schwarzenberg had meanwhile driven back Oudinot and Victor almost to Fountainbleau; one full-scale attack could have brought the Austro-Russian army, and its two Emperors, within a day’s march of Paris. Shocked by report of this setback, which canceled all his victories, Napoleon, leaving Marmont to at least harass Blücher, dashed south with 70,000 men, caught an Allied army under Wittgenstein at Montereau, defeated it (February 18), took a position at Nangis, and sent Victor and Oudinot to attack Schwarzenberg in flank and rear. Finding himself in danger on three sides, the Austrian general thought it an opportune time to suggest an armistice to Napoleon. The Emperor replied that he would agree to a cease-fire only if it pledged the Allies to the Frankfurt offer—which left France its natural boundaries. The Allies, insulted by this proposal that they should retreat behind the Rhine, ended the negotiations, and, in defiance, at Chaumont on March 9, confirmed their alliance for twenty years. Schwarzenberg retired to Troyes, still commanding 100,000 men.
Napoleon, with 40,000, pursued him cautiously. Meanwhile he learned that Blücher had re-formed his forces, and was again making a path to Paris with 50,000 men. Leaving Oudinot, Macdonald, and Etienne-Maurice Gérard to trouble Schwarzenberg, he marched his men back from the Seine to the Marne, and joined Marmont and Mortier in the hope of trapping Blücher at the River Aisne, where the Prussian’s only escape would be by a bridge to Soissons. But two other Allied armies, 50,000 men, moved down from the north upon Soissons, and frightened its commandant to surrender the city and the bridge. Blücher’s forces crossed the bridge, burned it, and united with their rescuers to total 100,000 troops. Napoleon pursued them with 50,000 men, fought them indecisively at Craonne, and was defeated by them in a savage conflict of two days at Laon (March 9–10).
It did not help him much that on March 13, finding another Prussian army in possession of Reims, he drove out the invaders and received a heartening welcome from the populace. Then, leaving Marmont and Mortier to face Blücher, he again marched from one enemy to the other, and at Arcis-sur-Aube, on March 20, in a madness of fury, launched his remaining 20,000 men against Schwarzenberg’s army, still 90,000 strong. After two days of heroic massacre he acknowledged defeat, and crossed the Aube to find a place where his depleted army could rest.
He was again at the end of his rope. His exhaustion of flesh and nerves revealed itself in his hot temper, his angry scolding of officers who had risked their lives for him in war after war. They warned him that he could expect no reinforcements to reach him from a nation bled to apathy and tired of la gloire. The government that he had left in Paris—even his brother Joseph —was sending him appeals to make peace at any price.
In his desperation he decided to risk everything on one more dash of imaginative strategy. He would leave his best generals to halt the Allied advance as well as they could; he himself, with a modest force, would march eastward, release the French soldiers immured in German fortresses along the Rhine, add those veteran troops to his battered regiments, cut the Allies’ lines of communication and supplies, attack their rear guards, and force them to halt in their march; so Paris, again inspired by his courage, might build its defenses, and defy the invaders. In a saner moment he sent instructions to Joseph that if surrender should be imminent, the government, with Marie Louise and the King of Rome, should be removed to some security behind the Loire, where all available French troops could gather for a last stand.
While Napoleon led his wondering survivors eastward, the Allies broke down, day by day, the resistance offered by the remains of the French army, and moved closer to the end of their long journey. Francis II stayed behind at Dijon, not willing to share in the humiliation of his daughter. Frederick William III, usually so mild, felt that he might justly take revenge for the destruction of his army, the dismemberment of his country, and his years of exile from his capital. Alexander, proud and tense, taking no pleasure in the daily slaughter, saw himself as fulfilling the vow he had made at Vilna to cleanse Russia of Moscow’s defilement, and to free Europe from the power madness of the Corsican.
On March 25 Marmont and Mortier made a desperate attempt to stop the Allies, at La Fère-Champenoise, a hundred miles from Paris. Outnumbered two to one, they fought with such carelessness of death that Alexander himself, advancing into the melee, commanded the uneven slaughter to stop, crying, “Je veux sauver ces braves!”; and after the combat ended the victors restored to the defeated generals their horses and swords.29 Marmont and Mortier retreated to Paris to prepare the defense of the capital.
Blücher and Schwarzenberg reached the outskirts of Paris on March 29. The sound of their cannon, and the sight of peasants fleeing into the city, created panic among the citizens, and tremors among the 12,000 militiamen —most of them armed only with pikes—who were now called upon to aid the residual army in manning the forts and hills of the capital. Joseph had long since begged the Empress-Regent to leave the city as Napoleon had directed; now she obeyed; but “L’Aiglon” resisted until frightened by the noise of the approaching battle.
On March 30th 70,000 of the invaders began the final attack. Marmont and Mortier, with 25,000 men, defended as well as they could a city that the proud Emperor had never thought of fortifying. Old soldiers from Les Invalides, students from the École Polytechnique, workingmen and other volunteers, joined the defense. Joseph watched the resistance until he saw that it was useless and might invite the destructive bombardment of a city that was dear to its rich and poor alike. Though Alexander might behave with commiseration and charity, the Cossacks might escape control, and Blücher was not the man to keep his Prussian cohorts from taking full revenge. So Joseph transferred his authority to the marshals, and left to join Marie Louise and the French government at Blois on the Loire. Marmont, after a day of bloody resistance, saw no sense in continuing it, and signed the capitulation of the city at 2 A.M. of March 31, 1814.
Later that morning Alexander, Frederick William III, and Schwarzenberg led 50,000 soldiers in formal entry into Paris. The people greeted them with silent hostility, but the Czar softened them with undiscouraged courtesy and repeated salutations.30 When the ceremonies were over he sought out Talleyrand in the Rue St.-Florentin, and asked his advice on how to arrange an orderly change of the French government. They agreed that the Senate should reconvene, that it should draw up a constitution, and should appoint a provisional government. The Senate met on April 1, composed a constitution guaranteeing fundamental liberties, appointed a provisional government, and chose Talleyrand as its president. On April 2 the Senate declared Napoleon deposed.